By 1880, Sir Edward Poynter (1836–1919) was well-established as one of the leading artists of the day. Although he had painted some spectacular panoramas and some scenes from popular classical narratives, many of his paintings were more typical of the Aesthetic movement, lacking the intricate narratives of Frederic, Lord Leighton’s earlier works. Poynter was also taking leading roles in art education, and was by this time principal of the predecessor to the Royal College of Art in London.
A Visit to Aesculapius (1880) is an unusual motif. Although this image makes it appear to be a nocturne, this is probably darkening because of aged varnish and dirt: contemporary prints suggest it is actually set in normally-lit daytime. Aesculapius, the ancient Greek god of medicine and the healing arts, sits at the left, contemplating the left foot of Venus, which has a thorn in it. She is attended by doves, her attributes, and the three Graces as her handmaidens.
Poynter arrays the Graces in classical manner, with one turning her back to the viewer, and reaching her right arm out to the figure of Hygieia, daughter of Aesculapius and the goddess of health and sanitation, who is drawing water from the fountain at the right. Shown at the lower edge of the painting is the staff of Aesculapius, around which a snake is entwined. That is not to be confused with the caduceus of Hermes (Trismegistus), which has two snakes intertwined.
This is a more complex classical narrative than Poynter’s earlier works, with little evidence of any Aesthetic influence.
Psyche in the Temple of Love (1882) returns to the theme of the contemplative woman, here in the context of a simple classical story. Cupid has fallen in love with Psyche, and takes her to the Temple of Love, where he visits her each night, but never in daylight. Here Psyche is whiling away the daytime, holding a sprig out to attract her attribute, a butterfly. However, Psyche’s enemy Venus is not far away, as shown by the doves in the temple behind her.
Diadumenè (1883) is one of several paintings which Poynter made of the Esquiline Venus statue in Rome, which had only been discovered in 1874. He first saw the statue in about 1881, here ‘restoring’ its form into the figure of a beautiful young woman who is binding her hair with a strip of cloth in preparation for her bath. The title is a reference to Polyclitus’ Diadumenos, meaning ‘diadem bearer’, one of his two famous figural types, the other being Doryphoros, or ‘spear bearer’.
Light in narrative but a classical depiction of the female nude, this painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1884.
It resulted in correspondence in The Times newspaper which condemned “the indecent pictures that disgrace our exhibitions”, to which Poynter responded with a defence of such classical works. The figure’s nudity may have been enhanced by the presence of her clothing next to her, just as in Thomas Eakins’s William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876-77). Ten years later, Poynter painted another version in which his Venus is partially clad, although her right breast still shows proud.
Outward Bound (1886) shows two young boys playing in a small rock cave at the coast. They have a bamboo fishing rod with them, and have made a small boat, which appears to be floating out through the rock arch at the left towards the open sea. Although the phrase outward bound is now more usually associated with the movement started in around 1941 by Kurt Hahn, and Baden-Powell’s scouting movement was not founded until 1910, there were contemporary advocates who promoted getting the poor out of cities to a healthier life in the country and at the coast.
Corner of the Marketplace (1887) might have been painted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), but for its joyous celebration of motherhood. Apparently it shows a maker of wreaths and floral displays at work, while the baby plays with a flower. However, the mother sat on a marble bench has a more pensive and wistful stare.
The Corner of the Villa (1889) may have been painted as a pendant to Corner of the Marketplace. Its ornate classical setting is almost overpowering in fine detail, threatening to outdo both Alma-Tadema and Gérôme. The family here is more patrician, and feeding pigeons from a bowl of seed. One of the birds is bathing and splashing in the drinking fountain at the left, and ripe apples are scattered on the marble floor.
The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1890) is another spectacle which might have been worthy of Gérôme: inspired by the growing collections of antiquities from Egypt and the Middle East which had been building in the British Museum and elsewhere, it presents a simple orientalist narrative of the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon.
Poynter again fills the painting with extraordinary detail, which spills over into its heavy, ornate frame. Orientalism was becoming the new classicism.
In a Garden (1891) treats a sub-tropical garden to a similar level of detail, as a small figure sits reading in the shade of a large fan.
In 1894, Poynter became Director of London’s National Gallery, and remains the last practising artist to have run this major collection. During his period as Director, which lasted a decade, he oversaw the opening of the Tate Gallery.
The Ionian Dance: Motus doceri gaudet Ionicos, Matura virgo et fingitur artubus (1895) quotes the ‘Roman’ Odes of Horace, and describes the ‘corruption’ of a young woman who learns the ‘lascivious’ movements of this particular dance. The Latin text may be translated as it pleases the mature virgin to be taught the movements of the Ionian Dance, and shapes her limbs. However, artubus may be a double entendre, as it can also refer to the sexual organs.
Poynter’s painting shows a shapely young woman, wearing nothing but a diaphanous dress, dancing vigorously in front of an audience of eight other women, who seem critically engaged in her performance. The painting appears very strongly Aesthetic, as well as more than a little risqué.
In 1896, Poynter was elected President of the Royal Academy at a time of difficulty: its long-standing President, Frederic, Lord Leighton, had died unexpectedly in January, and his successor, John Everett Millais, then died in August. Poynter was knighted in 1896, and made a Baronet in 1902.
Helena and Hermia (1901) shows two of the young lovers from William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helena is an aristocrat from the court of Theseus, who was betrothed to Demetrius, to whom she remains devoted. Hermia is an Athenian who is caught in a romantic accident, in that she loves Lysander, but Demetrius loves her. Hermia is named after the Greek god of exchange and dreams, one of the central themes of the play.
Although caught in complex relationships, Helena and Hermia are good friends, and it is their friendship which Poynter depicts, a popular theme for paintings in the nineteenth century. There is, perhaps, a little more symbolism buried in this work, though: a ball of red thread lies partly unwound on the ground at the lower right. This might represent difficulties in the course of love.
At first sight, Cave of the Storm Nymphs (1903) might appear to be another excuse for three superb female nudes, but there is more complex narrative behind this scene. Its literary reference may be to the Naiads of Homer’s Odyssey, book 13, who live in a sea cave, updated to encompass more contemporary references to Wreckers, who lured ships onto the rocks in order to steal their precious cargos – sirens without the socially unacceptable habit of cannibalism.
Here the three Storm Nymphs are seen amid their rich takings, the more distant of them perched on a rock and holding a shell-based lyre, and a wrecked galleon breaking up in the huge sea beyond. The painting is rich in the beauty of the nymphs, the savage waves, and the evoked sounds and sensations associated with each.
Asterié (1904) returns to a more thoroughly classical narrative, taken from Horace’s Odes, books 3 and 7. Asterié is a Greek wife, left behind in Athens while her husband is away in the service of the state. She is being stalked by the god Zeus, who lurks down in the street below, in human form. She looks down at him, pondering what to do: whether to succumb to his desires, or to retain her virtue?
Clutching a carnation (also adorning her hair), a symbol of marital fidelity, she looks to be standing by her absent husband, but the question is left open for the viewer to speculate. This painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1904, but remaining unsold, was sent to New Zealand for the 1906 New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch, where it was sold.
Lesbia and Her Sparrow (1907) might these days be easily misread from its title. In fact, Lesbia was the literary pseudonym used by Gaius Valerius Catullus, the Roman poet, for his lover, who is traditionally thought to have been another man’s wife. She came to dominate nearly a quarter of Catullus’ surviving poems, and appears in several contemporary paintings: Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted her at least twice, and several of those paintings show her with her devoted pet sparrow. For Poynter, it appears to be another Aesthetic work, which invokes the sparrow’s song, and the taste of grapes.
Poynter appears to have largely retired by the start of the First World War, and died shortly after its end. He was so greatly respected that he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, just as Sir Joshua Reynolds had been.
Edward Poynter was a prolific, highly successful, and very influential artist. For most of his career, he made paintings which appear typical of the Aesthetic Movement, and seems to have been an early innovator in that respect: his A Day Dream (1863) was painted when Dante Gabriel Rossetti was painting his early fleshly women, portraits of Fanny Cornforth.
His work includes classical narratives as sophisticated as Frederic, Lord Leighton’s, spectacles as good as the best of Gérôme, and some of the best paintings to emerge from the Aesthetic movement. Yet he has no catalogue raisonné, no monograph on his paintings, nor have his works been exhibited together since 1920, apart from a small exhibition in Brighton College’s Burstow Gallery in 1995. The time is right to move on from Roger Fry’s personal prejudices of a century ago, and look again at Poynter’s paintings.