Ovid moves his Metamorphoses on from the commemoration of the dead Hyacinthus in the purple hyacinth flower, to one of his most unusual myths. The vast majority of the myths of transformation which he collected here involve one or more people changing into animals, plants, or inanimate objects. The ultimate function of his stories may thus be to explain the origin of something, such as the hyacinth flower, or as an example of punishment for disrespect for the gods.
The story of Pygmalion reverses the usual direction of transformation, in that it centres on an inanimate object which is transformed into a person, and it is neither about punishment nor a story of origins.
Ovid prefaces the story of Pygmalion with contrasting tales. He tells first of the shameful memories of the Cerastae, who desecrated an altar, for which Venus turned them into bulls. Venus is then the link to mention of the Propoetides, women who denied the divinity of Venus. For that, the goddess first hardened their hearts by turning them into prostitutes, and finally into hard flint rocks.
Pygmalion had seen the Propoetides, and became celibate as a result of his revulsion. He still wanted married love, though, and carved himself the most perfect and lifelike statue of a woman in ivory. He kissed it lovingly, spoke to it, and dressed it in fine clothing.
When the festival of Venus arrived, Pygmalion prayed that he should have a bride who was the living likeness of his statue. Venus heard this, and the sacred flame rose to indicate her response. Pygmalion returned home, rejoicing that his prayer might be answered:
When he returned,
he went directly to his image-maid,
bent over her, and kissed her many times,
while she was on her couch; and as he kissed,
she seemed to gather some warmth from his lips.
Again he kissed her; and he felt her breast;
the ivory seemed to soften at the touch,
and its firm texture yielded to his hand,
as honey-wax of Mount Hymettus turns
to many shapes when handled in the sun,
and surely softens from each gentle touch.
He is amazed; but stands rejoicing in his doubt;
while fearful there is some mistake, again
and yet again, gives trial to his hopes
by touching with his hand. It must be flesh!
The veins pulsate beneath the careful test
of his directed finger. Then, indeed,
the astonished hero poured out lavish thanks
to Venus; pressing with his raptured lips
his statue’s lips.
His marriage to the former statue was blessed by Venus, and nine months later they celebrated the birth of their daughter, whom they called Paphos, after whom the island was named.
The story of Pygmalion has been popular with painters (and many others) from the Renaissance to the present. Until relatively recently, though, depictions either showed Pygmalion embracing/admiring an ivory statue, or they showed him embracing/admiring a naked young woman. There are therefore many wonderful paintings which fail utterly in narrative.
Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s The Origin of Sculpture (Pygmalion Praying Venus to Animate His Statue) (1786) is one of the best of these traditional versions, but lacks any visual clue that this statue will shortly turn into a flesh-and-blood woman. It does, though, hint at another story of great interest to the arts: Pygmalion as the original sculptor, which is not told by Ovid.
Edward Burne-Jones’ solution was to paint a series titled Pygmalion and the Image. He did this twice, once between 1868-70, and again in 1878. I show here the paintings from his second version of the series, which was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1879, and helped secure Burne-Jones’ position as one of Britain’s leading artists.
The Heart Desires shows Pygmalion in his celibacy. In the left background are Propoetides, or other women engaged in similar debauchery. They are echoed by and contrasted with Pygmalion’s statues of the three Graces on the right. He stands alone, pondering his next sculpture.
The Hand Refrains shows Pygmalion’s statue of the perfect woman. He stands back, his tools still in his hands and scattered at the foot of his work. Too scared to touch the statue now, he looks longingly at it, as if falling in love.
In The Godhead Fires, Venus (left) comes to Pygmalion’s statue while he is praying to her at the temple. The goddess transforms the inanimate marble (rather than Ovid’s ivory) into a living woman, and their arms interlace.
The final painting in the series, The Soul Attains, shows Pygmalion’s discovery that his statue has come to life, and him seeking her hand in marriage, with a symbolic pink rose on the floor by her left foot.
It was Jean-Léon Gérôme who, just over ten years later, devised the best narrative approach. Known principally now as a realist painter of fine detail, Gérôme was also a sculptor, and in a series of paintings explored relationships between the sculptor, their model, and their sculpture. Among these were his first studies for what I think is the most brilliantly narrative painting of Ovid’s myth.
This study for Pygmalion and Galatea from 1890 was an early attempt at the composition, in which Pygmalion’s future bride is still a marble statue at her feet, but very much flesh and blood from the waist up. That visual device was perfect, but Gérôme recognised that his painting could be shunned because of its full-frontal nudity. So he reversed the view.
Gérôme’s finished Pygmalion and Galatea (c 1890) extends the marble effect a little higher, and by showing Galatea’s buttocks and back and concealing the kiss, it stays on the right side of decency, for the day.
His attention to detail is, as always, delightful, with two masks against the wall at the right, Cupid ready with his bow and arrow, an Aegis bearing the head of Medusa, and a couple of statues about looking and seeing. For Gérôme too recognised the other stories about sculpture and seeing which could be brought in to enrich Ovid’s original narrative.
The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.