Ovid’s Metamorphoses seems to have held a particular fascination for Gérôme during the first half of the 1890s. Between 1890 and 1892, Gérôme undertook depictions of the story of Diana and Actaeon as well as making both painted and sculpted variations on the theme of Pygmalion and Galatea, both stories found in Ovid’s text. Writing to his biographer Fanny Field Hering in 1890, Gérôme mentions that he has begun to paint the subject of Galatea in hopes of rejuvenating the story, which he felt had become hackneyed. Ultimately Gérôme would paint some five versions of the subject in those three years, including the present esquisse.
In the Metamorphoses, Pygmalion is a Cypriot sculptor who creates a statue of a woman so beautiful and so realistic that he falls in love with it. When Venus’s feast day next arrives, the sculptor makes an offering to the goddess, secretly wishing for a wife as beautiful and pure as the sculpture he created. When he returns home, he kisses his statue and she comes to life in his arms. With Venus’s blessing the two marry, and have a child named Paphos, from whom the Cypriot port city's name is derived.
All of Gérôme’s paintings on the subject focus on this moment of Galatea’s transformation. Much like his depiction of Diana and Actaeon, which also shows the figure of Actaeon in the midst of transforming into a stag, Gérôme paints Galatea as flesh from the waist up and marble (or ivory, in Ovid’s recounting) from the waist down – the flush of life traveling down the figure’s body. In each of the five paintings, Gérôme alters the composition by including different studio props, but also most notably by showing the sculpture from different angles, as though the central figurative group were being viewed in the round through the series. The versions are also distinct from one another in that some feature a hazy apparition of Cupid aiming his bow at the lovers while others omit this detail. In both the present picture and another esquisse, both of which have remained in private collections, Galatea’s body faces toward the viewer and the Cupid figure is not included. Another lost version shows Galatea at a diagonal, and a second lost version has been described as representing Galatea ‘seen fully en face.’ In what is considered the prime version of the painting, now in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 1), Gérôme includes Cupid and depicts the sculpture of Galatea from behind, almost obscuring the figure of Pygmalion entirely but in so-doing emphasizing the dramatic arch of the sculpture’s newly flexible body as she leans down to her lover.
We are grateful to Graydon Parrish for confirming the authenticity of this work.
(fig. 1) Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, c. 1890. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.