Ondine and her curse

Carl Wilhelmson (1866–1928), Undine (1899), oil on canvas, 39 x 46.5 cm, Göteborgs konstmuseum, Gothenburg, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Not content with Naiads and other watery nymphs, the alchemist and proto-scientist Paracelsus (1493-1541) invented his own elemental beings associated with water, which became known as Undines or Ondines.

He elaborated the nature of Ondines too: although they cunningly resemble beautiful young women, they aren’t human, so lack a soul. The only way in which they can enjoy an afterlife is thus to marry a human. That might appear a beguiling option for both, but any man who is unfaithful to their Ondine wife will die as a result.

The children of a union between a man and an Ondine are humans, having a soul, but also have a trait which is linked to water, known as a watermark. This might be some anatomical abnormality which periodically has to be bathed in water, for example.

By the nineteenth century, this amalgam of classical Naiads and alchemical elements was becoming popular in artistic creation. In 1842, the year after his death from tuberculosis, Aloysius Bertrand’s (1807-1841) collection of prose poems Gaspard de la Nuit was published, featuring the poem Ondine. The collection inspired Maurice Ravel’s brilliant piano suite of the same name, of which the first piece is the ferociously difficult Ondine.

Undine, a novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (1777-1843), was published in 1811, and has since influenced a slightly different tradition. It gave rise to Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Little Mermaid in 1837, which became extremely popular throughout Europe and North America.

Daniel Maclise (1806–1870), A Scene from ‘Undine’ (1843), oil on canvas, 45 x 61 cm, The Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, Windsor, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1840s, versions of Fouqué’s story had made their way to London in the form of a play. One of the first painters to commit this to canvas was the great ‘faerie painter’ Daniel Maclise, in his 1843 depiction of A Scene from ‘Undine’. Although there are other Undines frolicking in the water at the upper left, Maclise concentrates on the romance between Undine and the man who is to give her a soul, in exchange for his lifelong faithfulness.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello, Fisherman of Naples (1846), oil on canvas, 79.1 x 79.1 cm, The Tate Gallery (part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-undine-giving-the-ring-to-massaniello-fisherman-of-naples-n00549

JMW Turner appears to have seen a similar stage production, which inspired his Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello, Fisherman of Naples of 1846. This is one of a pair of paintings in which spiritual power and transformation are represented by brilliant light; the other, The Angel standing in the Sun, is a vision of the Last Judgement.

Turner here apparently shows Undine offering a wedding ring to a fisherman, although much of its detail has now been lost in the dazzling light. Around are other Undines in the waves.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Undine (1872), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps living up to his name, John William Waterhouse painted Undine in 1872, arising from a fountain, and very modestly dressed. This was twenty years before he took to the nude Naiads of Hylas, shown in yesterday’s article.

Jules Lefebvre (1834–1912), Ondine (1882), oil on canvas, 151 x 92.5 cm, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Lefebvre had no qualms with turning his Ondine of 1882 into yet another classical nude, although her brilliant red hair is an unusual touch.

Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), In the Waves, or Ondine (I) (1889), oil on canvas, 92.5 x 72.4 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1889, Paul Gauguin painted two works in which Ondine is shown in the sea, among waves. The first, known now as In the Waves, or Ondine (I) (above), appears the more complete. Ondine II, in pastel and gouache (below), seems likely to have been a study, and its lower edge appears to have been cut or cropped out. He may well have seen Lefebvre’s painting, as the fuller version also features red hair.

Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Ondine II (1889), pastel and gouache on paper mounted on panel, 18 x 48.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.
Albert Tschautsch (1843–1922), Enchantment (1896), oil on canvas, 96 x 134 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

With growing interest in the femme fatale, Ondine was revamped into a figure like Medea, who cast a spell on her husband. Albert Tschautsch’s Enchantment from 1896 is an example of this changing image.

Carl Wilhelmson (1866–1928), Undine (1899), oil on canvas, 39 x 46.5 cm, Göteborgs konstmuseum, Gothenburg, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Carl Wilhelmson is one of the few painters who has succeeded in making Undine (1899) appear not quite physically there, as she shimmers among red tulips.

Egon Schiele (1890–1918), Undine II (1908), gouache, crayons, watercolour, white and gold paint on paper, 20.7 x 50.6 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Egon Schiele wins the prize for the most difficult painting of Ondine to read. His Undine II of 1908 was made in truly mixed media, including gouache, crayons, watercolour, white and gold paints, and a dash of Cubism too, it would appear. I can see Undine at the upper left, propped up on her elbows. Nearer to the viewer is a bald-headed man, and there are other presumably female figures laid across the centre of the paper.

Antoine Calbet (1860–1942), Ondines (date not known), oil on canvas, 80.6 x 100.3 cm, Musée de Cambrai, Cambrai, France. Wikimedia Commons.

My final selection is an undated work from around the turn of the 19th-20th centuries by Antoine Calbet: Ondines, which shows two nymphs in a rippled pool of water. One has red hair, which may go back to Gauguin’s version. His style is reminiscent of the great Swedish figurative painter Anders Zorn.

In 1939, Jean Giradoux based his play Ondine on Fouqué’s novella of 1811, and that has in turn been performed in a ballet by Hans Werner Henze (music) and Frederick Ashton (choreography).

In Giradoux’s play, Ondine tells her human and future husband Hans that she will be the breath of his lungs. After they are married, Hans reunites with his first love Bertha; when Hans later marries Bertha, he has to make a conscious effort to breathe. Ondine then kisses Hans, causing him to stop breathing and die – femme fatale indeed.

There is a rare medical condition, in which the automatic control of breathing fails, putting the patient at risk of stopping breathing when they go to sleep. This is known as congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, or Ondine’s curse. I’m confident that neither Paracelsus nor Giradoux had ever come across this condition, but their concepts and words were extraordinarily prescient.