Reading visual art: 36 Modern chimeras

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), The Artist and The Chimera (1906), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these two articles I started my quest for the Chimera from classical myth, a fire-breathing monster from Lycia. This was generally agreed to be a lion with the head and neck of a goat rising from its back, and a tail ending with a serpent’s head. Despite seeing many examples of weird composite creatures from the Renaissance, none quite meets that description.

After Hieronymus Bosch, the next rich and inventive source of composite creatures are the paintings of William Blake, from three centuries later.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun (c 1803), watercolour, ink and graphite on paper, 43.7 × 34.8 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

One of Blake’s best-known visionary images, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (c 1803), is based not on myth but the book of Revelation chapter 12 verses 1-4:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

Blake’s beast has body parts drawn from human, dragon, and caprine sources, and is closest to the Chimera to date.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Chimera (1867), oil on panel, 33 × 27.3 cm, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau painted at least two works claiming to show The Chimera. This from 1867 was the first of several after Oedipus and the Sphinx to depict odd semi-human mythological creatures.

Moreau’s creature consists of a centaur with wings, or the torso and head of a human, the wings of an eagle, and the body and legs of a hirsute horse. The only mythological creature conforming to this combination is an Al-Buraq, from Persian Islamic mythology. Although Moreau may have come across the Buraq, this is most probably an invention of his own.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Chimera (1884), watercolor with gouache on paper, dimensions not known, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Then in 1884, Moreau’s Chimera shows another composite creature, with a long-haired woman riding on its shoulder. This time the chimera has a human head and body, angelic wings, and a serpent’s (or dragon’s) tail.

After Blake and Moreau, we turn to the earlier work of Odilon Redon.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), l’Araignée qui pleure (The Crying Spider) (1881), charcoal, 49.5 x 37.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Redon’s l’Araignée qui pleure (The Crying Spider) from 1881 combines a spider, with an extra pair of legs, and the head of a man. It’s novel and inventive, but still nothing like the Chimera of old.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Chimera (1883), charcoal and black chalk on paper, 50.4 x 34 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Then in 1883, Redon drew Chimera using charcoal and black chalk, but it’s still nothing like classical myth.

Paul Ranson (1861–1909), Hippogriff (1891), oil on canvas, 95 x 72.5 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Paul Ranson comes closer than some with his unusual painting of a Hippogriff from 1891. Traditionally this beast consisted of the upper parts of an eagle on a horse’s hind parts, but here has multiple human faces and the hind limbs of a big cat.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), The Sphinx and the Chimera (1904-06), oil on canvas, 81 x 73 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The Athenaeum.

Louis Welden Hawkins surprises us with his out-of-character comparison between The Sphinx and the Chimera (1904-06). It’s hard to distinguish the Sphinx with its radiantly beautiful womanly face and sculpted wings, from the grotesque head and body of the chimera beneath.

My last hope rests with the modern Polish master, Jacek Malczewski.

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), The Artist and The Chimera (1906), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

In Malczewski’s The Artist and The Chimera from 1906, he re-interprets classical Greek mythology in a contemporary setting. His chimera is part woman, part eagle, with its fearful claws scratching at the artist’s bare chest as he lies captive under it.

While there’s no shortage of inventive chimeras, I still can’t find the Chimera among them.