Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Temptation, Pleasure, Genius

If ever there was a piece of fruit that caused a stir, it has to be an apple.  Curious really, it looks so innocent, so unprepossessing, yet it can damn you, win you, tempt you and crown you.  The apple is all powerful.

Bocca Baciata (1859) D G Rossetti
To start with, it's undeniable that the apple stands for temptation.  Casually placed in the corner of the canvas, the apple belonging to Bocca Baciata clearly refers to the knowledge and attraction of the woman, unbuttoned and pouting, awaiting your kisses.  The apple stands for sexual awakening, the power of carnal desire, with its shiny blush reflecting the rosy hair of the woman.

Eve (1896) Lucien Levy Dhurmer
The most famous apple is arguably the one that cast us from the garden of Eden.  Again, the rosy glow of the apple reflects the swirling locks of the beautiful Eve, surrounded by these tempting fruits.  They share her glow, they are almost part of her and extension of her, and reflect the woman's inherently sinful nature.  If there is a bad apple in the barrel, the woman is it.

Temptation (1880) William Bouguereau
Apples are tempting, all shiny and crisp, but somehow their possession is enough to rip you from childhood innocence.  Bouguereau contrasts the naked girl with the young lady as they face each other.  The apple has clothed her, rendered her marriagable, but not sophisticated, as marked by the bare feet.

The Hireling Shepherd William Holman Hunt
It seems once an apple is held, it has to be shared.  As corrupting produce goes, the apple is quite social.  The unlikely Eve in the shepherd's field has a look of sly knowledge, unlike her bumbling, lusty companion who has no thought beyond impressing his lady-love.  Much is made of the strayed sheep, exploding due to their wanton ways, but what of the woman?  What does she want?  She seems to exist to corrupt, destroy, lead astray, an apple-holding agent of chaos.

Apple Blossom (1859) J E Millais
The fruit doesn't even have to be developed for it to impart experience.  The young women sheltering under the blossom-strewn bows of the apple trees are, by degrees, blossoming themselves.  Far right, the girl in yellow reclines, her eyes on the viewer, suddenly aware of her (presumably) male admirer.

Of course, Eve wasn't the only woman of antiquity to cradle an apple...

Venus Verticordia (1868) D G Rossetti
The apple in Venus' hand signifies her triumph of attraction.  She won the apple from Paris, triumphing over her fellow goddesses with her naked ambition.  The apple is clothed in love, desire, the triumph of beauty over everything else.  In this religion, the apple is right, the natural choice, the choice of love.

Mars and Venus (1918) Mabel Frances Layng
A little later than we're used to here, but I couldn't resist it.  Mars, the soldier, is halted in his battles by the gentle, beautiful Venus, surrounding him with her apples of love.  He is not protected by his khaki, his battle-dress, from the charms of the open handed woman, his goddess.  She is his love, his safety, his imprisonment.

Vivien Anthony Frederick Sandys

Sandys shows his beautiful witch, complete with her apple.  She too will imprison a man, the all-powerful Merlin, safe from action, caught in a web of her beauty to which he has no power.

Golden Dream Thomas Cooper Gotch
The apple for women is a symbol of perfection, the height of what we are meant to be.  Despite the fall and corruption, the apple says women exist to be beautiful, to blossom into the loveliest creatures that will capture men in a safe net of immobility.  An apple in a woman's hands is a weapon of seduction, but what if the apple is in the hand of the man?

Master Isaac Newton (1905) Robert Hannah
Iconography  plays an apple as the spark of genius for men.  It falls from the tree to reveal wisdom; it is nature working in a flirting partnership with human genius, the sidekick to his intellectual prowess.

Tell's Son  Ford Madox Brown
The apple splits and reveals the talent of a man who would risk his son to prove his brilliance.  In a subversion of the story of Abraham and Isaac, Tell splits the apple of knowledge, his son placed in line for sacrifice.  For men, the apple is not food, not the stuff of base urges but the conduit for greatness, the revelation of genius.

Autumn Frederick Walker
In the end, apples are more than just fruit, they are edible signifiers.  By holding the blushing globe, the world of experience is nestled in your palm. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to make you a goddess, but sometimes it just makes you sad, looking out at the world with that ripe fruit at its pinnacle in your grasp.  Truth is, there is only decay left.  For that moment, the woman knows she is perfect, brilliant and beautiful.  She can conqueror Mars, wizards and shepherds alike and they will be powerless to resist her, but Venus' butterflies show that the power is momentary, transient.  All beauty fades because it is only nature.  When the apple finds a man without a woman, he can release the genius trapped inside.  What is left unspoken is whether the man's genius and the woman's beauty are connected. What is for sure is the hand that picks the apple is feminine, the arrow that splits it is male.

The Garden of the Hesperides Edward Burne-Jones


  1. A wonderful post! It is extremely fascinating that something common like an apple can have so many meanings and interpretations, and this is explored greatly through art. I love Bourguereau's painting - beautiful! Christina Rossetti's poem 'Apple Gathering' comes to mind.

  2. Astounding. This may be my favorite of your posts yet. I'll have to think a bit more about your words... The genders are indeed in a delicate dance, and the sin the apple offers is both luscious and dangerous, whether it too dances or just sits in the tree and waits.

  3. It's a bit like the apple is saying "Lust wisely" - surely a contradiction in terms!

  4. I'm sure it's possible to lust wisely, well, it's got to be worth a go :)

    Thanks for all the comments!


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