Reading visual art: 24 Transformation 2

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Pygmalion and Galatea (c 1890), oil on canvas, 88.9 x 68.6 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of this pair of articles showing paintings of transformation, I concentrated on the more popular myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This article completes those and shows a couple of different approaches.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Head of Medusa (c 1617), oil on panel, 69 x 118 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Although showing a more incidental scene from Ovid, the young and flourishing Peter Paul Rubens painted this remarkable Head of Medusa in about 1617. This most probably shows the head when Perseus had placed it on a bed of seaweed, after he had rescued Andromeda in the previous story. Rubens shows an exuberant mass of snakes, even a lizard and a scorpion, more of which are forming in the blood exuding at the neck.

The myth of Latona and the Lycian peasants may be less known today, but gives scope for some fine depictions of the transformation of the Lycians into frogs.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Latona and the Lycian Peasants (1595-1610), oil on panel, 37 × 56 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Brueghel the Elder’s panel showing Latona and the Lycian Peasants (1595-1610) is set in a dense forest, where the locals are busy cutting reeds and foraging. Latona, at the bottom left, is seen remonstrating with a peasant, over to the right. As the detail below shows, the goddess is in need, as are her babies. The peasant closest to her, brandishing his fist, is already rapidly turning into a frog. There are many other frogs around, including a pair at the bottom left corner, near the feet of one of the babies.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Latona and the Lycian Peasants (detail) (1595-1610), oil on panel, 37 × 56 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.
David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690), Latona and the Frogs (c 1640–50), oil on copper, 24.8 × 38.1 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

David Teniers the Younger’s Latona and the Frogs from around 1640–50 isn’t perhaps in the same class as Brueghel’s, but still tells the story well, and shows the transformation of the Lycians for refusing to help the goddess.

Francesco Trevisani (1656–1746), Latona and the Frogs (date not known), oil on copper, 16.1 × 26.3 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Francesco Trevisani’s Latona and the Frogs from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century is, like Tenier’s, painted in oil on copper. Even as his peasants are turning into frogs, they are still refusing to let Latona drink from their lake.

The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea includes a reversal of many of Ovid’s transformations, when Pygmalion’s statue comes alive. Most painters seem to have avoided this challenge, but Jean-Léon Gérôme was determined to get this right.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Pygmalion and Galatea (study) (1890), oil on canvas, 94 x 74 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This study for Pygmalion and Galatea from 1890 was Gérôme’s early attempt at the composition, in which Pygmalion’s future bride is still a marble statue at her feet, but very much flesh and blood from the waist up. That visual device was perfect, but Gérôme recognised that his painting could be shunned because of its full-frontal nudity. So he reversed the view in his finished version.

Last of my examples from Ovid is its weirdest, in which Myrrha’s incestuous relationship with her father led to her pregnancy and transformation into the myrrh tree, from which she gave birth to Adonis.

Marcantonio Franceschini (1648–1729), The Birth of Adonis (c 1692-1709), oil, dimensions not known, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Franceschini’s Birth of Adonis from around 1692-1709 adopts an appropriately vertical composition. Diana is handing Adonis over to another goddess, possibly Venus, who is preparing to take the role of wet-nurse. Behind them are two women looking in amazement, and Pan and a satyr are providing some celebratory music.

Transformations aren’t all mythical. Until the painstaking studies and paintings made by Maria Sibylla Merian in the late seventeenth century, biological transformations in the life cycle of insects were unknown, and caterpillars and butterflies were assumed to be different species.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), The Metamorphosis of Caterpillars and their Diet, Volume 2, Plate 44 (1683), coloured engraving, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The second volume of Merian’s Metamorphosis of Caterpillars and their Diet was published in 1683. Plate 44 shows an acacia together with the reconstructed lifecycle of the silkworm moth, featuring a magnificent swallowtail butterfly.

I finish this article where the first began, with a season of change, although this time it’s autumn/fall.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), The Cadence of Autumn (1905), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, The De Morgan Centre, Guildford, Surrey, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Evelyn De Morgan’s Cadence of Autumn from 1905 adopts a unique approach to depicting this transformation. Five women are shown in a frieze, against a rustic background. From the left, one holds a basket of grapes and other fruit, two are putting marrows, apples, pears and other fruit into a large net bag, held between them. The fourth crouches down from a seated position, her hands grasping leaves, and the last is stood, letting the wind blow leaves out from each hand. They wear loose robes coloured (from the left) lilac, gold, brown, green, and black.

Behind them at the left the trees are heavy with fruit and the fields either green or ripe corn. At the right, the trees are barren, and the landscape hilly and more wintry. This traces the procession of time and the changes seen in autumn, reflected in the colours of robes (De Morgan uses ‘colour coding’ elsewhere), the activities, fruits and dead leaves, and the progression across the background.