Monday, 12 January 2015

A Captive Audience

Imagine being a Victorian artist's model for a moment.  You must be asked to do some odd things, pose in some strange ways, but I'm guessing there were three words that were guaranteed to make a poor girl groan...
I'm painting Andromeda!

Andromeda (1869) Gustave Doré
Bare behinds, chains, rocks, scaly beasts, none of it hints at a comfortable working environment.  In some ways it's unsurprising that this Greek myth princess drew so many admiring glances in 19th century art as she offered a perfect opportunity to show a princess in dire danger without a stitch on.  Actually, it's not just the Victorians who fancied a bit of sea-beast action, as Andromeda appeared in art of the 16th century, not to mention ancient world mosaics and art. The more things change, the more they stay the same and some things (when they are to do with nudey wenches) really do not change...

Andromeda Chained to a Rock (1874) Henri Pierre Picou
Andromeda was the daughter of an ancient Greek King and boastful Queen who said her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs.  Well, this hacked off Poseidon, Sea God, who sent Cetus, his big fish monster, to attack the coastal community until Andromeda was fed to him.  Perseus, on his way home from killing Medusa, happened upon the maiden and sea-monster and turned one to stone and made off with the other.  Everyone likes a happy ending, and in theory she had a nice garden ornament out of the whole ordeal, which is a bonus.

It is a moment of the story filled with some highly desirable artistic features.  You have a girls, sea and a big sea-beast of vague description. Picou has gone with a dragon-y, goblin-y thing, crawling out of the foamy brine towards the kneeling Andromeda (unless she just stops at the knees), while Perseus seems to bungee into view with his gorgon head. Andromeda has gone with the classic hip-pop that all the boys like, plus the total nudity (which I gather is quite popular with boys too).  I feel I ought to say something about her lack of body hair but we'll come to that.  She was chained to the rock for ease of snacking I suppose, with only a badly fitting cloak to stop chaffing.  If you are about to be bitten in two, I suppose a little scuffed-up bum is the least of your worries.

Perseus and Andromeda (1929) Robert Anning Bell
Comfy cloak-pillow has been provided for Bell's princess, and the sea seems rather tame.  In fact I wouldn't mind dabbling my toes in that beautiful sea.  Plus no chains!  Come on, if you had to be left out for the sea-beast, there are worse way to goes than a coordinated cloak/ties/lipstick ensemble.  Perseus again seems to be lobbed into view brandishing his magic head.  I wonder if there are some discreetely forgotten stories of princesses on the way home where he lurched into view shouting 'Don't look at the Gorgon head!'
'What Gorgon he--'

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) Gustave Moreau
Moreau's crowned and draped princess looks a bit bored as floaty Perseus and a proper dragon scrap it out in the background.  Moreau painted out the copy of Vogue that's on her knee, honest.  When you've quite finished, chaps, I'm right over here, just sitting.  Really, take your time.  Oh, you've brought a head that can turn things into rock?  That's great because I can't get enough rock.
She looks the least distressed and the most unimpressed of any Andromeda I've seen.  

The Doom Fulfilled Edward Burne-Jones
I love this picture, I get quite overcome in Southampton Art Gallery's Perseus room.  I don't know if it's the wonderful girl-bottom or the handsome chap with a giant snake between his legs (I am so sorry) but this is a picture that makes me happy.  I love the blue of the dragon and hero - how exactly is the dragon-snake holding that pose out of the water?  I love that Perseus is so bad-ass that he's not even bothering to get his Gorgon head out, just gets out his big sword, while she with the arse-dimples looks on.  Burne-Jones even smoothed out the rock where she had to stand.  There's a man who treats his princess sacrifice right.

Captive Andromeda (1876) Arthur Hill
Popping that hip and looking all kinds of saucy, Andromeda is definitely posing for the artist: 'Deary me, I'm all naked and imperiled. Won't a handsome chap swoop down and save me?' I know your sort, Hill's Andromeda, you attention seeking hussy.  

It is interesting looking through the princesses, seeing which artist is showing full frontal and which disguise what they could not show.  To modern eyes, the smooth-moulded lady area seems weird and more perverse than if they had shown her more realistically blessed.  The artists who either turned her to the side or caught her drapery mid-tumble do not draw attention to that which is not there.  

Andromeda Sarah Hill
A side-on Andromeda, resigned to doom on her rock has pathos without being obviously titillating.  Compared with Arthur Hill's nipples-and-knees, Sarah Hill's princess anxiously catches her foot behind her ankle and waits.  Only the slightest ripple is visible around the base of her rock, hinting that the beast is on its way but not quickly enough to put her out of her misery.

Perseus and Andromeda (1891) Frederic Leighton
It isn't out of the realm of possibility that she'd be able to keep the drapery around her lower regions while in distress and that is what Leighton shows us.  Leighton has given a bit of thought to this, showing the dragon crouching over the captive princess (oh, peril!) while Perseus rides in on his sky-horse (no bungee!) and Andromeda manages to remain fairly decent.  Classy bloke, Leighton.  Note the curve of the cowering dragon reflected in the curve of the princess, her hair mirroring the tail which drapes her opposite side.

If painting Andromeda decently seemed a challenge, imagine how difficult it must have been to keep her modest in 3D...

Perseus and Andromeda (1894) Henry Fehr
Just to the right of Tate Britain's entrance stands this delicious pile of mythological Jenga.  Poor old Andromeda is on the bottom of the heap, squashed by scale-y dragon thing and on top is Perseus.  There is a model who suffered for someone else's art.  There seems to be a fair amount of leg crossing and keeping our knees together in this pile-up.  Classical jeopardy is all very well but no-one needs to be flashing their moo to the art-going public.

Andromeda (1869) Edward Poynter
If I have a favourite Andromeda, it has to be this one from Poynter.  It would be worth being eaten by a dragon if you get to look this fine.  The colour of her hair and the wonderful storm-sea shade of her wrap.  That drapery, whipping around her foreshadowing the beast that is on its way.  It is beautiful, dramatic, breathtaking in the shape of the sea, the shades of red and green. She is not hamming up the moment, she is there and she is scared, the dragon has nothing to do with it.  Something is coming and she already has her eyes shut: that's how scary the sea beast is.  It's always better when you don't see the monster because your imagination will always provide something far more frightening than  anything you are shown.

Andromeda (detail) (1851) John Bell
Andromeda gave artists a nice legitimate reason to show nipples and frontage, all in the name of Classics.  If you think about it, there is no reason why the poor lass needs to be naked, in fact, if I was being fed to a dragon I'd want to go in wearing armour or at least a bra with a nasty underwire.  Don't make it easy for Mr Sea-Beast!  Also chains, she needed to be chained there, apparently.  Sometimes not just chained up a bit but with arms above her head (so uplifting).  Oh you naughty Victorians!  However, all that turbulent sea gave a perfect excuse for some red hair, gorgeously offset with acres of creamy skin. The problem with Andromeda, not unique in art of the era but seemingly a particular problem for maidens with their arms chained above their heads, is what to do with the lady-areas. The traditional solution is the smooth, doll-mould of a pelvis which must have seemed both attractive and appropriate to a contemporary audience but just serves to highlight the opinion we have of Victorians as sexually repressed weirdos. That seems a shame because any era that can bring us something as glorious as Poynter's Andromeda can't be all bad...


  1. I always stop by when I see Burne-Jones. I think Bouguereau had an Andromeda too. Trying to stretch my tiny mind to remember. Thanks to Jessica Cale for sharing this! And double-thanks to you for posting this visual excursus. What a treat.

  2. In the Picou, I would think Andromeda is kneeling in water, except that her cloak doesn't sink or even get wet.

    My favorite is the Burne-Jones. Such striking colours!

  3. Thanks for your comments, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Bouguereau is a likely candidate for a nice pink bottomed girl, I shall have a little look and pop her up on The Stunner's Boudoir on Facebook if I find her.

    Perhaps Picou had difficulty with feet, feet are hard...

  4. My son is a graduate student in Classics. I will have to share the line about Classics legitmitazing the nudity. He often translates Latin poetry - those Ancients were quite randy and most decidedly bisexual. Thanks for sharing - I love seeing the way different artists treat the same subject.

  5. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
    Thanks for the comments!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx