The ancient Greek myth of Pandora had been almost unknown in paintings until the nineteenth century. During the 1870s, it suddenly became a popular theme for paintings in both Britain and France, but its narrative had altered from the original in showing the Greeks’ first human woman with a box containing the ills of the world, rather than a large earthenware storage pot.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema sought a compromise in his Pandora of 1881, in which she held not a box but a small pot, suitably decorated with a Sphinx. In what appears to be a skilfully-painted watercolour, Pandora has not yet given way to the temptation to open the pot.
Jules Lefebvre’s second painting of Pandora made in 1882, a decade after his first, also places her in profile next to the sea. She has a star just above her forehead, but that has become five-pointed rather than six, perhaps to dodge any Jewish connotations. His previous gentle narrative has all but vanished too.
The story of Pandora broke out of Europe by 1883, when Frederick Stuart Church painted his more illustrative Pandora (1883). Dressed more modestly (presumably for a wider audience), she is shown as an innocent young woman kneeling on a large golden chest as she tries to close its lid and stop the stream of red demons emerging. I suspect that this was painted as an illustration for a printed collection of classical myths.
In his later years, William-Adolphe Bouguereau chose an oddly androgynous model for his depiction of Pandora in 1890, but has rather lost the narrative. Her neutral expression, body language, and the closed box tell little of what is about to come.
One of his lesser-known paintings, John William Waterhouse’s Pandora from 1896 is a major depiction of this myth, and one of the most complete.
Set by a small brook in a dark, primeval forest, her box has become a large gold chest encrusted with precious stones and decorated with mythological motifs. Pandora kneels by its side, peeking inside as she carefully raises its lid. But even this tentative glimpse is sufficient to release its stream of ills, of which she appears unaware.
I wonder whether the rush of demons from the box is suddenly going to overwhelm, snatching the lid from her hand, and throwing her into panic to try to close the chest again.
Ernest Normand is one of few painters to show a later moment, in which Pandora (1899) bends low to duck beneath the swirling grey clouds of evils as they spread out into the idyllic world beyond, causing blossom to fall as petals to the ground. Her jar is only hinted at, behind her bilowing white robes, almost depriving the viewer of this vital cue to the original story.
I have been unable to find a date for this presumed illustration by the great Arthur Rackham of Pandora, but suspect it was made around the turn of the twentieth century, and intended to accompany a British English retelling of this myth.
As with Church before, Pandora is young and innocent in her nakedness. She gazes up in awe at the batlike demons as they escape from the open lid of her large wooden chest, seemingly unaware of what she is unleashing in her curiosity.
Thomas Benjamin Kennington shows Pandora (1908) in the final phase of regret and sorrow, after the evils have all been released. Her box, now empty, with no sign of the remaining Hope, rests on her thigh. She hangs her head in shame, resting it on her right hand as she weeps at what she has done. Unfortunately the released demons shown at the left edge are so dark that they are quite hard to see.
Over this period, other artists had also been painting the story of the creation of Pandora, a theme which I have avoided in these two articles. I will, though, show one of the more unusual works depicting this, a painting which was lost for forty years.
John Dixon Batten’s The Creation of Pandora was painted somewhat anachronistically in egg tempera on a fresco ground by 1913. Batten was one of the late adherents of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and now almost forgotten. It had been exhibited in a commercial gallery, and was acquired by the University of Reading, England, shortly before the First World War. Deemed unfashionable in 1949, it was put into storage and quietly forgotten until its rediscovery in 1990.
Pandora is at the centre, having just been fashioned out of earth by Hephaestus, who stands at the left, his foot on his anvil. Behind them, other blacksmiths work metal in his forge. At the right, Athena is about to place her gift of a robe about Pandora’s figure, and other gods queue behind her to offer their contributions.
Just before the start of the war, Odilon Redon made a series of studies leading to a radically different presentation of Pandora’s story.
Redon’s undated pastel study of Pandora shows her clasping her box close in the midst of very large floral images.
Redon’s finished oil painting of Pandora from about 1914 shows her more clearly, surrounded by a garden of exquisite and exotic blooms, referring to Eve’s Paradise before the Fall. She holds her box to her bosom, in the midst of succumbing to temptation to open it, but Redon stops just short of showing its evils pouring out.
My final representation of the myth of Pandora is a photograph from 1919 by the society portrait photographer Yvonne Gregory (who also worked under her married surname of Park): Pandora. The box lies wide open by her knees, as Pandora is bent double in distress over it, her left arm over her head to shelter her from the demons which have been released, and in grief at what she has done.
Given the disasters which had struck the world in the years immediately preceding this photograph – the mass carnage of the war, and the influenza pandemic which followed it – it must have had great impact when it was published in 1919.
The myth of Pandora rose to fame during the late nineteenth century, a time when painters were responding to tragedies such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and increasing awareness of the ills within society.
In some ways, and for its time, it was a curiously misogynist tale, attributing the release of all the ills in the world to its first Eve-like woman. Its continuing popularity through the twentieth century is even more questionable.
As a visual story, it has a moment – when Pandora first opens the jar or box and its demons start to escape – which is pictorially and narratively compelling, but relatively few painters chose to depict that. From this view, Henry Howard (1834), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1871, 1878), Frederick Stuart Church (1883), John William Waterhouse (1896), and Arthur Rackham told the story optimally.
And despite claims that narrative painting was dying during this period, these paintings are splendid evidence to the contrary.
Wikipedia on the myth of Pandora.