Ribbit: Frogs and toads in paintings, 2 Princesses

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Medea (1866-68), oil on wood panel with gilded background, 61.2 x 45.6 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham England. Wikimedia Commons.

In my survey of paintings of frogs and toads, yesterday’s article considered the classical myth of Latona, who transformed the obstructive Lycians into frogs. Today I look at paintings of folk stories, and a few other works which defy classification.

The popular children’s story of the Frog Prince, which appears in many variants, is usually considered to be a fairy tale, and is the first in the major collection published by the Brothers Grimm. Its origins are much older, though, and it’s now thought to date back to a folk story or legend first cited in classical Roman times.

The version recorded by the Grimms has a spoiled princess drop a golden ball into a pond. This elicits the appearance of a frog, who holds the ball in his mouth. The princess reluctantly makes friends with the frog, who is eventually transformed into a handsome prince when the spell binding him in the form of a frog is broken. Recent retelling of this story often makes the princess’s kiss the event which breaks the spell, although in the Grimms’ version the princess throws the frog against a wall in disgust, which seems a bit harsh.

Marianne Stokes (1855–1927) The Frog Prince (c 1890), other details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Marianne Stokes’ delightful painting of The Frog Prince from about 1890 shows an incredulous young princess listening to the talking frog, whose real identity – and the outcome of the story – is made obvious by his crown.

Koloman Moser (1868–1918), The Frog Prince (c 1895), oil on panel, 25.5 x 35 cm, Universität für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

In Kolo Moser’s very dark Frog Prince from about 1895, the frog wears a small crown, and presents the princess with the golden ball which she had lost in the pond.

Koloman Moser (1868–1918), Bookplate with Princess and Frog Design for Adele Bloch (c 1905), handcoloured appliqué On Japanese paper, 13.6 x 9.5 cm, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Moser revisited the motif in about 1905 for this charming bookplate which he designed for Adele Bloch-Bauer, the heiress whose portraits Gustav Klimt painted so famously.

Mary Sheppard Greene (1869–1958), The Princess and the Frog (1909), oil on panel, 64.1 x 81 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Sheppard Greene’s account of The Princess and the Frog from 1909 is firmly rooted in the Grimms’ version, with the frog still holding her golden ball in its mouth, and no clue of the resolution.

Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1848–1926), The Frog Princess (1918), oil on canvas, 185 x 250 cm, Vasnetsov Memorial Museum, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Viktor Vasnetsov’s The Frog Princess (1918) shows a Russian version of the Brothers Grimm story. In this, a king’s three sons are challenged to shoot an arrow to find themselves a bride. The youngest, Prince Ivan, lands his arrow in the mouth of a frog in a nearby swamp. This frog turns out to be Princess Vasilisa the Wise, who is being punished by being turned into a frog for three years. When Ivan burns the frog’s skin, he thinks that he has lost her, but eventually, with the involvement of Baba Yaga, she is turned back into a princess and becomes his bride.

The contrast between the simpler folk tales of western Europe and the more complex even epic stories of eastern European traditions is fascinating.

Frogs also star in several European fables.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Stork and Four Frogs (c 1889), distemper on red-dyed cotton fabric in a three paneled screen, 159.5 x 163.5 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Pierre Bonnard’s exquisite three-panelled Japoniste screen of The Stork and Four Frogs was painted at the outset of his career, in about 1889. Its story is contrastingly European, being based on one of Aesop’s fables retold by Jean de La Fontaine’s The Frogs who Demand a King (Perry 44, La Fontaine II.4).

The version retold by La Fontaine centres on a colony of frogs, who ask Jupiter for a king. The god’s first response to their request is a laid-back and gentle leader, whom the frogs reject as being too weak to rule them. Jupiter’s second attempt is a crane, who kills and eats the frogs for his pleasure. When the frogs complain to Jupiter, he then responds that they had better be happy with what they have got this time, or they could be given something even worse.

Bonnard’s panel is traditionally interpreted not as showing the evil crane of the second attempt, but the first and gentle ruler.

Although uncommon in other paintings, frogs and toads do appear elsewhere.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Temptation of Saint Anthony (Lisbon) (left wing) (c 1500-10), oil on oak panel, left wing 144.8 x 66.5 cm, central panel 145.1 × 132.8 cm, right wing 144.8 × 66.7 cm, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon. Wikimedia Commons.

A few are to be found among Hieronymus Bosch’s strange visions. The left panel of his triptych The Temptation of Saint Anthony in Lisbon, dated to about 1500-10, shows Saint Anthony being assisted by three others, as he crosses a small wooden bridge, in a state of complete exhaustion, perhaps after being beaten unconscious by the devil. In the countryside around that group are weird human and portmanteau animal figures. On the left is an invented bird-like creature with a long straight bill, which is swallowing a whole frog.

Paulus Potter (1625–1654), The Bull (1647), oil on canvas, 235.5 x 339 cm, Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague. Wikimedia Commons.

A small frog stands proudly in the foreground of Paulus Potter’s first masterpiece, which continued to be ranked alongside Rembrandt’s finest for the next couple of centuries, The Bull (also widely known as The Young Bull) from 1647. Originally intended just to be a portrait of the central bull, Potter enlarged the canvas to accommodate (from the left) a ram, lamb, ewe, herdsman, cow, and above them a bird of prey, possibly a buzzard. Beyond them are more cattle in the meadows, which recede to the church of Rijswijk, which is between Delft and The Hague. I don’t know whether the frog was intended as a signature device here.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Between Sky and Earth (1862), oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Belfort, Belfort, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Doré’s strange painting Between Sky and Earth from 1862 also features a frog in the foreground. The viewer is high above the fields outside Doré’s native Strasbourg, where several small groups are flying kites. The kite shown at the upper left has just been penetrated by a flying bird. Another unseen kite, off the top of the canvas, has a traditional tail, at the end of which a very anxious frog is tied to it by a hindleg. However a stork appears to have designs on seizing the opportunity to eat the frog, and is approaching from behind, its bill wide open and ready for the meal.

This could be an allegory, of course, but is probably a humorous depiction of kite-flying at the time, when people were still curious as to what happened to living creatures as they ascended higher in the atmosphere.

As far as I can tell, all the amphibians I have shown so far are regular frogs rather than toads, which have long been associated with dark arts and sorcery. I finish with a contrasting pair of paintings of the noted sorceress from classical myth, Medea.

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Medea (1866-68), oil on wood panel with gilded background, 61.2 x 45.6 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham England. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1866-68, Frederick Sandys painted Medea at work preparing a magic potion. In front of her is a copulating pair of toads, and other ingredients. Behind her, in a gilt frieze, is Jason’s ship the Argo. I don’t know whether the toads offended the jury of the Royal Academy, but this wonderful painting was rejected when Sandys submitted it for exhibition.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Jason and Medea (1907), oil on canvas, 131.4 x 105.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

When John William Waterhouse tackled the same theme in 1907, in his Jason and Medea, he opted for a single toad, behaving itself quietly on the floor. Medea is depicted as a sorceress, preparing perhaps the potion which Jason is to later give to the dragon. Jason appears anxious, ready to go and tackle his challenge. This time, no offence was caused by the toad.