Tuesday 20 October 2015

Man-Damsel in Distress!

Although not as instantly remembered as Ophelia or The Lady of Shalott, surely one of the most familiar Victorian paintings with Pre-Raphaelite leanings has to be this one...

Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) John William Waterhouse
Gorgeous greens and blues with just that dash of red denoting danger and heavens! all those pearly skinned nymphs, dragging poor old Hylas off for a life of watery pleasure.  What a way to go. I hadn't really given the subject much thought, other than deciding which of the nymphs I fancied being (centre back, faffing with my hair) and until recently I hadn't seen (or looked for) any other renderings of the subject.  After a little digging, there are loads of them making me glance suspiciously at my gentleman readers and wonder if there is something about the idea of being carried off by a party of naked lovelies that people find appealing.  I can't imagine what that would be...

Hylas and Nymphs, 3rd century Roman Gaul
Right back to the time of Astrix we go (don't tell me that wasn't all entirely based on fact, thank you) and here we have an early depiction of our handsome hero being accosted by some women at a watering hole.  I'm not entirely sure about the health and safety ramifications of water-collecting with a spear while in the nude.  It also answers the question 'Is that your spear or are you just pleased to see us?' Sorry, it's his spear.  Anyway, in Greek myth, the beautiful Hylas was a very good friend of Heracles, after Heracles killed his Dad.  Or was his Dad, it's all a little unclear and it all depends if you listen to Ovid.  Anyway, the upshot was that Heracles and Hylas had a thing going on and Heracles took him off on the Argo, but Hylas was kidnapped by nymphs at the spring of Pegae.  No matter where the distraught Heracles looked he could not find Hylas who found he didn't mind being loved forever by a bunch of nymphs.  I'm not sure what the moral of the story is - boys prefer hanging out with women than looking for golden sheep?  If you are fishing and a bunch of women offer to show you their tackle, don't lean over too far?

Hylas and the Nymphs (1630) Francesco Ferini
The thing I love about the various Hylas pictures is the different facial expressions he has been blessed with, not to mention the enthusiasm that the nymphs are employing in order to abduct him.  Some Hylas are going easier than others, I think you'll agree.  This seventeenth century Hylas looks bemused but not exactly unwilling.  I get an air of 'I've just had this coat dry-cleaned, you know!' about him and there definitely is a bit of rough stuff going on amongst the nymphs.  Look at the two on the front right: one is definitely giving the other a clout.  Come on ladies, plenty of Hylas to go round...

Young Hylas and the Water Nymphs William Etty
Etty gives us the full story, with Heracles looking out for his friend on one side and the girls rather barrelling the young man into the water on the other.  They are beautifully lit, with the water shimmering and the nymphs all snowy and lovely, I'm surprised Heracles can't see them.  He's bound to hear the splash...

Nymphs Rescuing Hylas Joshua Cristall
Oh, 'rescuing' is it? Hello Heracles, I was just having a swim and these lovely young ladies 'rescued' me and are in no way towing me off to their water-y pleasure palace.  They seem to have a fairly firm grip on him and there is some proper teamwork going on.  Well done nymphs, if we all work together we can abduct a pretty young man and no-one is any the wiser.  He could try shouting for help...

Hylas and the Nymphs Bertel Thorvaldsen

Here we have a mid-relief plaque of Hylas, fleeing from one nymph into the arms of another.  I notice the nymph he is fleeing is the only one who has bothered to get dressed that morning.  Typical.

Hylas surprised by the Naiads (1837) John Gibson
Honestly, some of the Hylas look rather too stupid to escape from a paperbag, let alone some determined nymphs.  This rather sheep-eyed pretty-boy is well on his way to a water-y end, or several water-y ends.  I'm so sorry.  Moving on.

Hylas abducted by Dryope at the Spring of Pegae (1933) Henry Pegram
This is a wonderful piece of sculpture, in St John's Lodge garden, Regent's Park, London.  It has definite overtones of Burne-Jones' The Depths of the Sea and she is very much mermaid rather than water-nymph.  I always find mermaids to have a rather more fatal air about them and Hylas looks rightly terrified as she yanks him down to the depths.  Eep!

Hylas and the Nymphs Edouard Theophile Blanchard
Apologies for the black and white, I sadly couldn't find this in colour but I think we can imagine some lovely pastel-ness as our hero is dragged off by the naked ladies.  He is definitely leaning over too far.  I'm sure I saw a public information film in the 1970s warning about this sort of thing...

Hylas and the Nymphs Henrietta Rae
Rivalling Waterhouse in terms of gorgeousness, Henrietta Rae gives us a similar scene, with flower-decked lovelies appearing among the water-lilies in order to apprehend the object of their desire.  He seems to have just noticed the one who was sneaking up behind him (which you definitely need legs to do, mermaids take note).  He has the manner of a chap that has become a tad uneasy about the amount of flattery he is getting - 'Yes, I am handsome, yes I know, how kind of you to notice, oh, hello, I didn't see you behind me...' *Splash*

Hylas and the Naiad John William Waterhouse
Now, if this girl-gang business makes you uncomfortable, here is Hylas being abducted by one very game Naiad.  It seems a far fairer fight, does it.  Maybe she's just after his leopard-print wrap...

Hylas and the Nymphs Bert Barelds
To bring you up to date, here is a beautiful photographic rendering of Waterhouse's original.  It does make a pleasant change to see a hapless man being carried off by mythical beings after the countless female victims in legends.  I think it is clear why the myth holds a continual fascination for artists, a little wish-fulfilment possibly and it all ends well enough, as these things go.  Apart for poor Heracles that is.  So, I think the lessons we can take away from this are that mythical beings, male or female are not to be trusted. 

Also, if you are pretty in ancient Greece, you shouldn't be left on your own.  If a pretty young woman says she's got something to show you in a river, feel free to have a closer look but you only have yourself to blame, you saucepots...


  1. Pleased to see a work by Bertel Thorvaldsen. If you go to this link http://www.thorvaldsensmuseum.dk/samlingerne and type Hylas in the empty box you will find another on the same theme and a number of his sketches. It does not seem to work if you switch to English. Next time you are in Copenhagen do not miss Thorvaldsens Museum, which is right in the centre of town. Nice post.

  2. Why do these paintings remind me of a certain scene in Monthy Python's Holy Grail movie involving multiple damsels?

  3. Dear Kirsty
    Never trust those naked damsels... (I do enjoy your way with words on your posts!)
    However, I'd like to add that in 'Jason and the Argonauts', Hylas comes to a slightly less pleasant end in that he gets squashed by the bronze statue of Talos. Of course, it is entirely his own fault because he ignores Jason's orders and steals from Talos, causing his own demise and a good deal of difficulty for the Argonauts. Hylas is obviously a bit of a problem whichever version of him you read about or see. Youth and raging hormones - not a good combination!
    Best wishes

  4. Squashed man-damsels are not pretty. Why are the good-looking ones always such hard work?


    Thanks for your comments.

  5. Up here int' north we have a couple of water nymphs who haunt the depths of lakes and rivers. Peg Powler and Jinny, (Jenny) Greenteeth. Neither of whom you'd wish to encounter. I think I much prefer the Greek version of the water nymph.

  6. Yes, Greek nymphs are after your body, but not in a 'nom-nom-nom' sort of way. Beware of any nymph who tells you that you look delicious, or at least get her to clarify before you go off with her.

  7. I think northern nymphs want my body for their leek trench!


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