Most nymphs have their origins in myth and legend, but some get invented. In the early sixteenth century, 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 these 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. While that might appear a beguiling option for both, any human 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, with a soul, but also have a trait linked to water, known as their watermark. This might be some anatomical abnormality which periodically has to be bathed in water, for instance.
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 popular throughout Europe and North America.
In the 1840s, Fouqué’s story 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 about to give her a soul in return for his lifelong faithfulness.
JMW Turner must have seen a similar stage production, inspiring 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 Turner’s 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. There are further Undines in the waves.
Living up to his name, John William Waterhouse painted Undine in 1872, as she rises from a fountain, in modest dress. This was twenty years before he painted the shockingly nude Naiads of Hylas.
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.
In 1889, Paul Gauguin painted two works showing Ondine among waves in the sea. 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 gives her red hair.
With growing interest in the femme fatale, Ondine was revamped into a sorceress like Medea, who cast a spell on her husband. Albert Tschautsch’s Enchantment from 1896 is an example of this changing image.
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 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, with a dash of Cubism too. 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.
My final painting is an undated work from around the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries by Antoine Calbet: Ondines, showing 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 at all times. Ondine then kisses Hans, causing him to stop breathing and die, a true femme fatale.
In 1962, John W Severinghaus, one of the great anaesthetists/anaesthesiologists of the twentieth century, and Bob Mitchell published a description of an exceedingly rare condition they originally named Undine’s Curse, now generally known as congenital central hypoventilation syndrome. In this the automatic control of breathing fails, and the patient’s life is put at risk because, like Giradoux’s Hans, when they cease making a conscious effort they stop breathing.
Maybe we should have taken Paracelsus more seriously.