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|
|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|
|Hylas and the Nymphs Edouard Theophile Blanchard|
|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|
|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...