One hundred and twenty six

Pygmalion and Galatea

1890 by Jean-Léon Gérôme
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gérôme was an academic painter of the French school, determined to retain the sanctity of traditional painting among the bubbling creativity of Impressionism. Though his views are questionable his paintings are interesting, providing windows of realism into myths told over and over. The detail, the light and the approach of this scene through nineteenth-century eyes, all pull the story into Victorian reality. It becomes an illuminated illustration rather than a longing for the warmth of far off Greek mysticism. We have none of the dry heat of sand or sun, but a shadowy green that envelopes Pygmalion’s studio, summoning the lush palette of the countryside. There is something pre-Raphaelite, Millais-like, about the painting – in the calling of green fields and the woody dust that hangs in the air, visualising the natural glistening of endless waiting as in Millais’s Mariana. Of course in Pygmalion and Galatea the waiting is over, as Gérôme takes the moment in which Cupid’s arrow turns Pygmalion’s dream of stone into his living bride. This is beautifully conjured in a cartoon-like fashion, as the warmth of peachy skin blushes down the legs of cold white marble. Galatea’s first breath of life is epitomised in this wonderful depiction of flesh; the skin appears newborn, glowing and supple, while the back curves, arms outstretched, in a way the statue never could.  The tenderness of this pose, the opening of Galatea’s embrace and Pygmalion’s thankful and desperate receiving of it, perfectly captures the passion and relief of the couple. The painting is subtle in Gérôme’s hiding of the protaganists’ faces, yet trite in Cupid’s hovering presence on his little cloud, floating translucently in a silvery shadow.

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