Tag Archives: mythology

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Venus Verticordia

24 Oct

“‘Alas! the apple for his lips,—the dart

That follows its brief sweetness to his heart,—”

(Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia, 1864-68

Painting “Venus Verticordia” is a gorgeous example of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s style of portraits from the 1860s. The original model for the goddess of love was an exceptionally beautiful cook that Rossetti had met in the street. We don’t know what she looked like; perhaps she fit Rossetti’s ideal of a woman perfectly, or perhaps with his imagination and with his brush he transformed her into his feminine ideal. Regardless,in 1867 he had altered the face on the portrait to fit the features of his favourite model Alexa Wilding who sat for many of his paintings. The goddess of Love was portrayed in so many ways and so many times throughout history, but here she takes on the typical features of Rossetti’s feminine ideal; her hair is long, lush and auburn, her eyelids heavy and langorous, her lips thick and pouty, her neck strong. This is a far cry from the weak, frail and melancholy beauty exemplified by his lover and muse Elizabeth Siddal whose face and figure domineered his art of the previous decade.

“Venus Verticordia” means “Venus, changer of the heart” and was said to change the hearts of men from lust to love, but the mood and symbolism in Rossetti’s portrait tell a different story. The eroticism isn’t subtle and subdued here, but rather the goddess’ breasts are lavishly exposed. The space around her is filled with lush, vibrant flowers, roses and honesuckles, whose symbolic connotations of passion and female sexuality would have been known to the Victorian audience. She is holding a golden arrow in her hand, a motif we usually see with her son Cupid, the god of desire erotic love. A contrasting motif to all this is a golden halo and butterflies around her head, both are symbolically connected with spiritual, not earthly or sensual matters. The halo typically graces the heads of saints and butterflies are sometimes seen as symbolic of the soul, so perhaps a soulful love and not just a carnal one.

The painting left no one speechless when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Art critic and writer John Ruskin found the painting tasteless to put it lightly while others such as the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote: “The great picture of Venus Verticordia has now been in great measure recast; the head is of a diviner type of beauty; golden butterflies hover about the halo of her hair; alight upon the apple or the arrow in her hands; her face has the sweet supremacy of a beauty imperial and immortal; her glorious bosom seems to exult and expand as the roses on each side of it. The painting of leaf and fruit and flower in this picture is beyond my praise or any man’s; but of one thing I will here take note; the flash of green brilliance from the upper leaves of the trellis against the sombre green of the trees behind. Once more it must appear that the painter alone can translate into words as perfect in music and colour the sense and spirit of his work.”

Stills from the film “Love Witch” (2016)

When I look into the eyes of this redhead Venus conjured in the imagination of the Victorian artist, poet and an aesthete, the image of Elaine Parks from the film “Love Witch” (2016) comes to mind; both have that look of indifference and power in their eyes, a certain awareness of their beauty and dominance, and they are confident about their inevitable success in love matters. It is a gaze that brings doom to a man who gazes back at it.

John William Waterhouse – Ariadne

2 Sep

“In relation to the labyrinth of her heart, every young girl is an Ariadne; she owns the thread by which one can find one’s way through it, but she owns it without herself knowing how to use it.”

(Soren Kierkegaard)

John William Waterhouse, Ariadne, 1898

The rich and vibrant colours and the sensual, indolent, Mediterranean mood of Waterhouse’s painting “Ariadne” are very aesthetically pleasing and captivating, but the resplendent beauty of this canvas hides a fascinating story from Ancient mythology and a deeper meaning. The lady lounging idly by the azure blue sea in the distance is Ariadne, the daughter of the Cretan King Minos and Pasiphae. Her flowing rusty red gown speaks of blood, passion and courage. And how beautifully the redness of her dress contrasts the purple and matches the red poppies sprouting from the grass. Waterhouse’s Ariadne is as lovely as all the other maidens that inhabit the dreamy, mythology-inspired world of his canvases; she is slender and pale, with budding bosom and masses of soft brown hair. The pose of her arms and the whiteness of her bosom exposed adds a sensual mood to the painting, reminiscent of the dolce far niente genre of paintings.

Ariadne is captured by the painter’s brush in a dreamy, idle state, but if we imagine the thread of the story unraveling, we would see the arrival of Theseus, as perhaps hinted by the ship arriving to the island, and their encounter. The myth of Ariadne is very old, and has many variants, but generally the story goes that she assisted Theseus, the handsome hero whom she instantly fell in love with, to enter the labyrinth and kill the Minotaurus. She was also his savior, for she saved him from the horrid death which usually awaited everyone who tried to slay the beast in the middle of the labyrinth built by King Minos. Ariadne gave Theseus a sword to fight, and a ball of string which she was given to by Daidalos, the builder of the labyrinth.

After he slays the beast, Theseus finds his way out of the labyrinth using the ball of string and, fearing the revenge of her father, Ariadne and Theseus escape the Crete and  “During the voyage north, Theseus called in at the island of Naxos (or Dia), where he abandoned Ariadne. An early tradition suggested that he did so deliberately because he was in love with another woman, namely Aigle, a daughter of the Phocian hero Panopeus; but it was commonly agreed in the later tradition that he was obliged to leave Ariadne behind because Dionysos wanted her as his wife.” (The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology) Poor Ariadne, the lonely girl on the island of Crete who helps a hero only to be abandoned by him, stretched between passion and duty. While the tales of mythology focus on the action, the labyrinth and the Minotaurus, Waterhouse, the Victorian escapist and dreamer, focused on a dreamy moment in Ariadne’s life, the serenity before the struggle and haste, and, as always, has succeeded in beautifully capturing a female figure from mythology, just as he did with many others.

John William Waterhouse – Apollo and Daphne

8 Jun

“Hardly had she ended her prayer, when a heavy torpor seizes her limbs; and her soft breasts are covered with a thin bark. Her hair grows into green leaves, her arms into branches; her feet, the moment before so swift, adhere by sluggish roots; a leafy canopy overspreads her features; her elegance alone remains in her.”

John William Waterhouse, Apollo and Daphne, 1908

As the title itself suggest, a motif of transformation, of metamorphosis, lingers throughout the tales from the Roman poet Ovid’s narrative poem “Metamorphosis”. Along with the motif of love, of course. A tale of Apollo and Daphne is perhaps the most explored one in the arts because the poem is filled with imagery which is easy to translated into the visual language of painting and sculpture. Bernini’s beautiful sculpture certainly comes to mind, along with many Renaissance paintings, but when I think of mythology scenes in art, I think of the prolific, imaginative, well-known and well-loved British painter born in Rome; John William Waterhouse. I am not saying that his version is the best, but it is the first one that came to my mind because I am a fan of his dreamy paintings woven with romanticism and filed with intricate details and vibrant colours. His art is always so beautiful, there is no other word for it. The tale of Apollo and Daphne is that of pursuit and lust. Daphne is an athletic, free-spirited virgin just like Diana, and she isn’t the one who falls in love easily, but she is very beautiful and Apollo simply cannot contain himself. Here is a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which describes Daphne’s personality. I really love her rebellious, independent nature:

Many a one courted her; she hated all wooers; not able to endure, and quite unacquainted with man, she traverses the solitary parts of the woods, and she cares not what Hymen, what love, or what marriage means. Many a time did her father say, “My daughter, thou owest me a son-in-law;” many a time did her father say, “My daughter, thou owest me grandchildren.” She, utterly abhorring the nuptial torch, as though a crime, has her beauteous face covered with the blush of modesty; and clinging to her father’s neck, with caressing arms, she says, “Allow me, my dearest father, to enjoy perpetual virginity; her father, in times, bygone, granted this to Diana.” (read the entire tale here)

Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25. Picture found here.

Led by the most primal urges, Apollo, the God of Lightness and Clarity, chases the beautiful, free-spirited and wild nymph Daphne through the forest. He is holding a lyre in his hand in Waterhouse’s painting, perhaps wooing Daphne with his mellifluous music, but to no avail, for she is determined to remain free and untouched. The painting depicts the moment of climax in the story; the moment when Daphne, having had cried out for help to her father Peneus, is being transformed into a laurel tree. Notice how sensually the soft blue fabric is wrapped around her, and how she is covering her bosom with her arm and with the fabric. Her gaze shows her fear, and Apollo’s hand is stretched because he greedily desires to touch her soft pale skin before it turns to bark:

Yet he that follows, aided by the wings of love, is the swifter, and denies her any rest; and is now just at her back as she flies, and is breathing upon her hair scattered upon her neck. Her strength being now spent, she grows pale, and being quite faint, with the fatigue of so swift a flight, looking upon the waters of Peneus, she says, “Give me, my father, thy aid, if you rivers have divine power. Oh Earth, either yawn to swallow me, or by changing it, destroy that form, by which I have pleased too much, and which causes me to be injured.”

Hardly had she ended her prayer, when a heavy torpor seizes her limbs; and her soft breasts are covered with a thin bark. Her hair grows into green leaves, her arms into branches; her feet, the moment before so swift, adhere by sluggish roots; a leafy canopy overspreads her features; her elegance alone remains in her. This, too, Phœbus admires, and placing his right hand upon the stock, he perceives that the breast still throbs beneath the new bark; and then, embracing the branches as though limbs in his arms, he gives kisses to the wood, and yet the wood shrinks from his kisses.

Even though the poor nymph Daphne had transformed into a laurel tree just to escape his lustful embrace, Apollo still doesn’t give up and kisses the tree bark where her skin used to be and promises to celebrate the laurel tree from that moment on:

To her the God said: “But since thou canst not be my wife, at least thou shalt be my tree; my hair, my lyre, my quiver shall always have thee, oh laurel! Thou shalt be presented to the Latian chieftains, when the joyous voice of the soldiers shall sing the song of triumph, and the long procession shall resort to the Capitol.

John William Waterhouse – The Naiad

3 Apr

Wonderful and well-loved painter of dream-like mythology scenes, John William Waterhouse was born on 6th April 1849 in Rome. So his birthday is coming up in a few days and I think his paintings with nymphs and enchanting woodlands are perfect scenes to gaze at in these times of spring’s awakening.

John William Waterhouse, The Naiad (Hylas with a Nymph), 1893

A nymph gazes wistfully at a handsome sleeping lad. “How handsome he is!”, she must be thinking, and what thoughts arise in her mischievous naiad mind as she gazes at his slumbering body covered only with a patch of animal skin… Drops of water are dripping from her long weed-like hair and rippling in the river, a twig snaps in her hand, she holds her breath, but alas the young slumbering lad awakes! Dazed and confused, he rises his body and sees the beautiful naiad, her naked body as pure, white and alluring as a lily flower in moonlight. I hear Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun coming from afar, every leaf, every moss and every blade of grass are echoing the sounds and bringing it closer, it flies through the air, the enchanting melody which sings of awakening. Two hearts beating loudly in the loneliness of the woods. Doomed is the moment when Hylas awoke and saw this naiad, this child of nature and sweet water nymph with ruby lips and wistful gaze.

Waterhouse’s depictions of mythology scenes are very dreamy and romantical, but at the same time they are incredibly realistic because they perfectly convey the mysterious and magical mood of nature. Just look at the dense row of thin trees of very soothing brown bark, grass and the billowing river, painted in soft blue zig zag brushstrokes, which gives the painting a sense of depth and seems to reflect the sky. It doesn’t look as idealised or grandiosely beautiful as J.M.W. Turner or Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paintings do, no, the way Waterhouse paints nature as a setting for his romanticised mythological scenes is realistic enough to make you believe that when you go for a stroll in the woods or sit by a lake that you could actually encounter a nymph or step into the world of dreams. I never actually saw a satyr or a nymph in the woods, but I know that it was a case of bad timing, different schedules, you know how it is in life.

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896

Painting “The Naiad”, painted in 1893, is like a prelude to the more famous one “Hylas and the Nymphs” painted a few years later, in 1896. Hylas was asleep. Hylas awoke, the nymphs wanted him and the nymphs got him. How magnetically handsome he is, they sigh… Their hearts ache with a desire to draw him deep into the moist depths of their lake, deep under the water lilies and those big flat floating leaves which serve as beds to water lilies.

Nymphs are female creatures in Greek and Latin mythology. They are usually depicted as beautiful and fatal maidens who love to sing, dance and hang out with satyrs in forest groves and lakes. They are also notorious for being naughty as one can see in the story with Hylas. They represent power of nature. Name “nymph” comes from Greek word “nymphē” which means “bride” and “veiled”, referring to a marriageable young woman. One of the meaning is a “rose-bud”, perhaps indicating the beauty all the nymphs possess. By choosing nymphs as subjects and portraying this tragic story of love, seduction and doom, Waterhouse fully expressed his romantic sensibility, and revealed his fascination with strong and beautiful female figures. Nymphs are presented as sweet and alluring, and Hylas is powerless against their charms.

Jean-Antoine Watteau – Satyr Pouring Wine

29 Jul

A very interesting drawing of a Satyr by a Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Satyr Pouring Wine, 1717, Black, red, and white chalk

Awhile ago I stumbled upon this interesting drawing of a Satyr pouring wine. It looks sketchy and unfinished, but the male nude is certainly striking and a bit mysterious. Robust body captured in the movement, pouring wine but the wineskins in his hands are left undefined. Some parts of the body are very detailed and precise, such as the torso and the shoulders with generous strokes of black and some red on the hands, while other parts like legs just simply vanish. And notice the playful swirls of black for the hair. The face expression looks focused, the gaze intense, looking downwards. It looks swift and energetic, the artist really had a hard job capturing that satyr pouring the wine before the action was completed and the satyr wandered off not wishing to be the star of the canvas. Being fond of Satyrs, Fauns and other wild creatures from Greek and Roman mythology, I was instantly taken by this drawing. What a robust male nude, what a determination in the drawing, especially considering the limited colours.

I was quite surprised to learn that the author of this drawing was none other that Watteau. I usually connected Watteau with more delicate, gentle and dreamy works of art; paintings where refined, elegant couples spend idle hours in the forest, a world of silk dresses and celebrations of love, a world where a pale melancholy Pierrot dressed in an oversize clothes is the true tragical hero… I don’t see how a drawing of a nude Satyr would fit into this elegant world laced with sweet sadness that Watteau had created in his short life but I guess I know nothing of Watteau’s imagination! In Greek mythology Satyrs were presented as wild creatures of the forest with mane-like hair, faces like beasts, and similar to Faun, they love to indulge in drinking wine, dancing, chasing local beauties, most often unsuccessfully. In my humble opinion, Watteau could have added a few more touched to this mane-like hair, make it look more like Jim Morrison’s hairstyle, but that’s just my opinion. In this drawing Watteau used his beloved trois crayon technique (“three chalks”) using three colours; red, black and white chalk on paper. But it isn’t really three colours but four, because there is the colour of the paper which in this case perfectly matches the skin tone of the Satyr. This study is connected to the lost painting “Autumn” which was part of the cycle commissioned by the banker Pierre Crozat.

Circle of Watteau, Head of a Satyr, no date, Black and red chalk, heightened with yellow chalk with traces of white chalk on brown paper