Reading visual art: 23 Transformation 1

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Apollo and Daphne (1908), oil on canvas, 145 x 112 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

There’s one book you’re likely to have found in every artist’s studio from the Renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century, a well-used copy of a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. His stories have been so successful because each plot is written around transformation, the central device in a great deal of narrative. In many cases, those transformations aren’t just literary but highly visual, and were the challenge to the painter. Just how do you depict a nymph changing into a tree? Let’s see.

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi), Primavera (Spring) (c 1482), tempera on panel, 202 x 314 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi), Primavera (Spring) (c 1482), tempera on panel, 202 x 314 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Even masters like Botticelli ducked the problems. In his masterwork Primavera (Spring), based not on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but his less well-known Fasti, the artist shows the before and after, side by side.

At the right is Zephyrus, who grasps the body of the nymph Chloris, who looks back in fright at him. Next to her is Flora, dressed in a robe bearing images of many different flowering plants.

Chloris was wandering in the Spring when she was seen by Zephyrus, who followed her. In her modesty, the nymph fled, but couldn’t escape the god, who of course flew like the wind after her. Boreas his brother had told Zephyrus that he could rape Chloris as a reward for stealing from Erechtheus’ house, which Zephyrus did once he had caught her. To make amends (!) for his violence to her, Zephyrus then made Chloris his bride, and she transformed into Flora, who enjoys perpetual Spring.

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi), Primavera (Spring) (detail) (c 1482), tempera on panel, 202 x 314 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi), Primavera (Spring) (detail) (c 1482), tempera on panel, 202 x 314 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

In his sequel to Primavera, the great narrative painter Nicolas Poussin also dodged painting transformations.

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Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) The Empire of Flora (1631), oil on canvas, 131 × 181 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

His Empire of Flora from 1631 includes several figures who underwent transformation:

  • Ajax, falling on his sword and his spilled blood turning not into the purple hyacinth but a white carnation;
  • Narcissus and Echo, the former enraptured by his own reflection, with Echo gazing longingly at him, and the narcissus flower;
  • Clytie, who fell in love with Apollo and pined away into the sunflower (heliotrope);
  • Flora herself, presiding over her floral empire;
  • Hyacinthus, killed by his own discus for falling in love with Apollo then turned into the flower, and Adonis, fatally wounded when hunting and turned into the anemone;
  • Smilax and Crocus, unrequited homosexual lovers, who were turned into saffron and rough bindweed flowers.

I make that a total of nine transformations, each shown as a before and after pair.

Others did rise to the challenge, with varying degrees of success.

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Piero del Pollaiuolo (c 1441-1496), Apollo and Daphne (c 1470-80), oil on wood, 29.5 x 20 cm, The National Gallery (Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876), London. Photo © The National Gallery, London.

Pollaiuolo’s Apollo and Daphne (c 1470-80) is one of the earliest, and remains one of the most famous, depictions of this myth. Apollo’s pursuit has ended, he has reached his quarry and is embracing her, as she changes into a laurel. Already her arms have become exuberant bushes, and her feet are rapidly rooting into the ground.

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Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), Apollo and Daphne (c 1744-45), oil on canvas, 96 x 79 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The other famous painting of this myth is Tiepolo’s Apollo and Daphne (c 1744-45), which brings in Cupid, who is somewhat immodestly sheltering from his victim Apollo beneath Daphne’s billowing robe. In front of them, his back to the viewer, is Daphne’s father, the river god Ladon, who carries his oar as an attribute. Daphne’s transformation is at an earlier stage, the fingers of her right hand sprouting leaves, but it’s obvious what is just about to happen.

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John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Apollo and Daphne (1908), oil on canvas, 145 x 112 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

John William Waterhouse’s Apollo and Daphne (1908) tries to be more realistic. Apollo, holding his lyre with his left hand, has just reached Daphne, who looks justifiably alarmed. Instead of following tradition and showing her transforming into a laurel, she is being encased within one, not exactly a metamorphosis. Some have claimed that Waterhouse used Bernini’s marvellous marble statue of the couple as his source, but Bernini showed transformation, not encasement.

Another well-known myth centred on transformation is that of Diana and Actaeon, who is transformed into a stag and promptly killed by his own hunting dogs.

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Giuseppe Cesari (1568–1640), Diana and Actaeon (1602-03), oil on copper, 50 × 69 cm, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.

Giuseppe Cesari’s Diana and Actaeon (1602-03) tackles this directly. Diana and her nymphs don’t look as shocked and alarmed as they should, but Actaeon’s hounds are getting ready to pick a fight with him, as if they can tell what those growing antlers mean.

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Martin Johann Schmidt (1718–1801), Diana and Actaeon (1785), oil on copper plate, 55 × 77 cm, Narodna galerija Slovenije, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin Johann Schmidt captures the splashed water in mid-flight in his Diana and Actaeon of 1785, and is one of the few artists to have heeded Ovid’s description of Diana’s great stature in comparison to the nymphs. Another detail he depicts well is the nymph who is standing in front of Diana to shield her body from Actaeon’s sight.

corotdianaactaeon
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875), Diana and Actaeon (1836), oil on canvas, 156.5 × 112.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Corot’s Diana and Actaeon from 1836 is unusual for employing multiplex narrative to good effect, a couple of centuries after it ceased being popular in paintings. Its most prominent figures are those of Diana and her attendant nymphs, who are behaving like real people, climbing a branch bent over the water, and soaking up the sunshine. At the right, Actaeon with one of his hunting dogs is just about to run straight into them. Diana, appropriately crowned, stands pointing to the distant figure at the left, who is again Actaeon, antlers growing from his head as she transforms him into a stag.