Painting Pandora’s story 2

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Pandora (1896), oil on canvas, 152 × 91 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these two articles, I outlined the original Greek myth of Pandora and her jar of evils, and showed paintings of her up to 1882. These underwent a change between 1834 and 1860, in which her myth became conflated with that of Psyche, and the jar became a box. Then in the 1870s this suddenly became one of the most popular subjects for mythological paintings.

The box (concluded)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), Pandora (1890), oil on canvas, 92.5 × 64.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In his later years, William-Adolphe Bouguereau chose an oddly androgynous model for his depiction of Pandora in 1890, but has rather lost the narrative. Her neutral expression, body language, and the closed box tell little of what is about to come.

Just before the start of the First World War, Odilon Redon made a series of studies leading to a radically different presentation of Pandora’s story.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Pandora (date not known), pastel and charcoal on board, 22.1 x 29.1 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Redon’s undated pastel study of Pandora shows her clasping her box close in the midst of very large floral images.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Pandora (c 1914), oil on canvas, 143.5 x 62.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Bequest of Alexander M. Bing, 1959), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Redon’s finished oil painting of Pandora from about 1914 shows her more clearly, surrounded by a garden of exquisite and exotic blooms, referring to Eve’s Paradise before the Fall. She holds her box to her bosom, in the midst of succumbing to temptation to open it, but Redon stops just short of showing its evils pouring out.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Pandora (1896), oil on canvas, 152 × 91 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

One of his lesser-known paintings, John William Waterhouse’s Pandora from 1896 is a major depiction of this myth, and one of the most complete. Set by a small brook in a dark, primeval forest, her box has become a large gold chest encrusted with precious stones and decorated with mythological motifs. Pandora kneels by its side, peeking inside as she carefully raises its lid. But even this tentative glimpse is sufficient to release its stream of ills, of which she appears unaware.

The box opened

Frederick Stuart Church (1842–1924), Pandora (1883), pencil and ink wash on paper, 30.2 x 45.7 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The story of Pandora broke out of Europe by 1883, when Frederick Stuart Church painted his more illustrative Pandora (1883). Dressed more modestly (presumably for a wider audience), she is shown as an innocent young woman kneeling on a large golden chest as she tries to close its lid and stop the stream of red demons emerging. I suspect that this was painted as an illustration for a printed collection of classical myths.

Ernest Normand (1857-1923), Pandora (1899), further details not known. The Athenaeum.

Ernest Normand is one of few painters to show a later moment, in which Pandora (1899) bends low to duck beneath the swirling grey clouds of evils as they spread out into the idyllic world beyond, causing blossom to fall as petals to the ground. Her jar is only hinted at, behind her billowing white robes, almost depriving the viewer of this vital cue to the original story.

Arthur Rackham (1867–1939), Pandora (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

I have been unable to find a date for this presumed illustration by the great Arthur Rackham of Pandora, but suspect it was made around the turn of the twentieth century, and intended to accompany a British English retelling of this myth. As with Church before, Pandora is young and innocent in her nakedness. She gazes up in awe at the batlike demons as they escape from the open lid of her large wooden chest, seemingly unaware of what she is unleashing in her curiosity.

Too late

Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856–1916), Pandora (1908), oil on canvas, 166.3 × 113 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington shows Pandora (1908) in the final phase of regret and sorrow, after the evils have all been released. Her box, now empty, with no sign of the remaining Hope, rests on her thigh. She hangs her head in shame, resting it on her right hand as she weeps at what she has done. Unfortunately the released demons shown at the left edge are so dark that they are quite hard to see.

Yvonne Gregory (Park) (1889-1970), Pandora (1919), photograph, published in ‘Photograms of the Year’, 1919, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

My final representation of the myth of Pandora is a photograph from 1919 by the society portrait photographer Yvonne Gregory, who also worked under her married surname of Park: Pandora. The box lies wide open by her knees, as Pandora is bent double in distress over it, her left arm over her head to shelter her from the demons which have been released, and in grief at what she has done.

Given the disasters which had struck the world in the years immediately preceding this photograph – the mass carnage of the war, and the influenza pandemic that followed it – it must have had great impact when it was published in 1919.


William Etty (1787–1849), Pandora Crowned by the Seasons (1824), oil on canvas, 87.6 × 111.8 cm, Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds, England. Wikimedia Commons.

When William Etty painted her, in Pandora Crowned by the Seasons of 1824, the significance of the crux of the story, Pandora opening the jar, had become lost in other detail. Besides, it gave Etty another opportunity to paint a statuesque and almost naked young woman.


The myth of Pandora rose to fame during the late nineteenth century, a time when painters were responding to tragedies such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and increasing awareness of the ills within society.

In some ways, and for its time, it was a curiously misogynist tale, attributing the release of all the ills in the world to its first Eve-like woman. Its continuing popularity through the twentieth century is even more questionable.

As a visual story, it has a moment, when Pandora first opens the jar or box and its demons start to escape, which is pictorially and narratively compelling, but relatively few painters chose to depict that. From this view, Henry Howard (1834), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1871, 1878), Frederick Stuart Church (1883), John William Waterhouse (1896), and Arthur Rackham told the story optimally. And despite the many claims that narrative painting was dying during this period, these paintings are splendid evidence to the contrary.


Wikipedia on the myth of Pandora.