The Art History Journal of Students - Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904)

By Emily Bedard
Freshman Art History Survey II
23 April 2006

While strolling through the gallery of Nineteenth-Century Art in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, you are likely to stumble upon the painting of Pygmalion and Galatea by the French painter, Jean-Léon Gerôme. Completed in approximately 1890, this work illustrates the charming Greek tale of Pygmalion and Galatea: the story of a lonely sculptor who falls in love with his beautiful creation, and by grant of a wish, she comes to life and returns his love.
The story of Pygmalion and Galatea comes from the collection of Greek myths known as Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The story begins by presenting Pygmalion, a sculptor from Cyprus, who was a lonely bachelor. He was unable to find love because he was so disgusted by the faults and imperfections of mortal women. Being unable to bear the thought of loving one of them, he continued to lead his life as a single man. Yet inevitably, the companionless Pygmalion grew sad and lonely. So, in his studio, he began to sculpt a life size woman from marble. This creation held every characteristic that Pygmalion desired in a woman; he created his ideal, which could never be found among an earthly mortal. The more he was with his sculpture the more he became attached to it. He would dress her in fine clothing and jewelry, and he would often bring her gifts. He would kiss her, longing that she would kiss him back. He would embrace her and fear that his touch would leave bruises on her flesh. Yet, when he stood back he would painfully realize that his creation was still nothing but the hard, cold stone. With this, Pygmalion grew even more depressed. He knew that the only thing he truly desired could never love him back. Soon enough, the city’s festival of Venus began. Pygmalion decided he would attend the festival, and pray to the goddess to grant his wish. He was ashamed to say he wanted his statue to come to life, so instead he wished for a mate who was like his marble woman. However, Venus, who heard the prayer, knew Pygmalion’s true desire. She felt compassionate toward the lonely sculptor and decided to grant his wish. When Pygmalion returned home to his studio he approached his sculpture, which still stood tall in stone. He stepped up on its pedestal, as he had done many times before, and he kissed his statue. Expecting the same cold, hard sensation, Pygmalion was astonished. The frozen lips became warm, and the hard stone beneath his hands became soft and forgiving to his touch. In shear amazement and exaltation, the sculptor continued to kiss and touch his transforming creation, reassuring himself that his granted wish was not merely a dream.
Gerôme’s painting is certainly an explicit illustration of this myth. He chose to show us the most climatic scene; the moment that Pygmalion first realizes that his work has been given human life. The snapshot quality of the painting eternalizes the moment, allowing us to continually feel the strong emotion of Pygmalion’s realization. Although not an easy task, Gerôme was able to do several things compositionally to capture the scene’s evanescence. The first thing we notice in the painting is the female nude, mostly because she is the lightest form on the canvas, and her contours offer the highest value contrast. She is visually, as well as contextually, the center of attention. Pygmalion’s sculpture, Galatea, whose name comes from the Greek meaning white stone, stands with her back facing us. She stands firmly on a sculptural platform, which is then held up by a sculpting turntable. At her feet we can see a fish which has been carved into the stone. This may appear rather strange, but indeed it is a relevant allusion. In Greek mythology the character Galatea is also known for being a sea nymph, making it understandable why in Gerôme’s painting the fish is associated with her. If we continue to look closely at Galatea we can see that there is a color change in her figure, starting just above her knees. The upper portion of her body is a warm flesh color, and from the knees down she is a cold white. This color change indicates the statue’s metamorphosis from stone to flesh. Because we can see that her lower legs are still in stone it gives us a greater sense of the moment’s ephemerality, also adding to the painting’s tension. We look at the work as if expecting to see the rest of her body come to life (and we probably want to know what will happen to the fish!).
As we look to the left of Galatea we see the creator, Pygmalion, to whom this morphing masterpiece is responding warmly. Galatea has her arms around him in reception to his exalted embrace. Pygmalion, who appears to be a couple feet below Galatea, rises up to her on his tip toes with the assistance of a step stool. He is shown wearing flowing blue workman’s robes, and the self propelled wind rushing through them confirms his excited movements. He kisses Galatea passionately and holds her tightly as if to never let her go. Pygmalion’s astonishment and energy is clearly evident in the painting, and we can even see that at the bottom of the picture plane there is a tool lying haphazardly on the floor, as if Pygmalion had thrown it down upon realizing his dream had come true. This image conveys a strong feeling of love and passion, and of course, what is love and passion without cupid? In the upper right hand corner we see this winged god of love and lust readily aiming his arrow at the united pair. Including cupid was a simple addition by Gerôme, however, there is no recognition of his presence in the original story. Encompassing the fair Galatea along with Pygmalion is the sculptor’s other equipment. There is a small set of portable stairs on the far side and to the left of Galatea. As the steps are positioned in relation to the placement of the feet of both Pygmalion and Galatea, it looks as though the two figures would be standing on them if the line of the stairs continued instead of disappearing behind the pair. This creates a strong diagonal axis through the bottom of the picture plane. Then, directly across from Pygmalion on the left side of Galatea there is another wooden crate that mimics the one he stands on. This counters the strong diagonal by adding a subtle air of symmetry. Along the walls of the studio in the background we can see a shelf that runs the entire width of the painting. On the far right, propped up on the shelf, we see two theatrical masks, probably representing the traditional pair of comedy and tragedy. Complete with colored skin and lifelike hair, both of these faces exhibit exaggerated expressions. Their mouths are agape as if they are bellowing. As we look down and to the left of the masks, we see a warrior’s shield leaning against the wall. If we then follow along the shelf to the left of Pygmalion and Galatea we see some other smaller sculptures of women. One of the statues is a woman in a standing pose with an arm around a child standing next to her. To the right, the second sculpture is of a woman sitting in a chair while viewing herself in a hand held mirror.
Gerôme, who had sprang many of his ideas from mythology, was also quite well known for his paintings of the Near East. Orientalism, to which this interest was later referred, was the western fascination with exotic places, and often times focused on cultures that were heavily male dominated. In many of Gerôme’s paintings, such as Phryne before the Areopagus, Purchase of a Slave, and his many other depictions of woman being shown at auction, demonstrate the prominence of feminine inferiority in these cultures. Although the image of Pygmalion and Galatea was not one of Gerôme’s orientalist works, it exercises some of the same gender roles that are characteristic to those paintings. First of all, there is an obvious relation of Pygmalion as the male master to Galatea as the female slave. Because she is a creation of his, she is eternally indebted to him, and must submit to his every command. Even though Galatea is given human life, we are never led to believe that she could possibly live that life freely. She was brought to life for Pygmalion, and therefore forced to love him without straying to pursue her own desires. Another firm indication of male dominance in this painting is the contextual fact that Pygmalion had to create his own woman. The story describes that Pygmalion found mortal woman unworthy, and undeserving of his love. In order to satisfy his desires, he had to disregard mortal femininity entirely and create an ideal which nature was incapable of producing. Because of the distinct gender differences in this work, it helped to establish two beliefs which have been very important throughout the history of art. First, there is the man, in this case, Pygmalion, who is supposed to be the masculine and cultured worker, thriving by the use of his creativity and progressive imagination. And then we have the woman, represented here by Galatea, who is supposed to be pure and delicate by nature, unquestionably stressing her fertility. The two sculptures in the background reiterate this notion. The sculpture on the left is of a woman with a child, probably stressing that the woman’s role to be a mother. The statue of the woman looking at herself in the mirror is a symbol of vanity, indicating that other than their fertility, women should only be concerned with maintaining the beauty of their appearance (Which Pygmalion desired from his creation). This set of beliefs run commonly throughout works of art, yet despite their popular use, they are completely sexist assumptions.
Although the subject matter of this painting has often been seen as overwhelmingly male dominant, it has also been suggested that this piece presents, instead, a reversal of these gender roles. Our first big clue is a visual one. According to the general rule that the higher the figure is on the picture plane, the greater the importance, we can see that Galatea is definitely in control. She stands on a turntable, or pedestal if you will, which positions her a few feet above Pygmalion. Pygmalion is shown beneath Galatea, and in order for him to reach her he needs to climb up to her level. She has to crouch down in order to accept his affection. Although we cannot ignore the fact that she is still just a creation of Pygmalion’s, we can agree that she possesses his soul. Because he has invested his whole heart and body into this woman, she becomes an icon to him. She possesses his idolization; therefore, in essence, she can make him do whatever she wants. If Gerôme’s intent was to show us Pygmalion’s blind and naïve devotion to Galatea, then he did well by including a visual warning sign of the dangers in Pygmalion’s investment. The two theatrical masks in the background on the right side of the canvas are a haunting reminder that fabrication rarely holds truth. The masks are used in theater to show an emotion that is not real, but are still able to draw the intended response. Therefore, although Galatea may show affection and love toward Pygmalion, she is still merely a man made creation; no matter what emotions she may present, they are nonetheless artificial. Because Pygmalion so credulously believes that Galatea’s love is sincere, we are left only to recognize his passion as a sad and pitiful weakness.
Whether Gerome intended for us to see the image as a glorification of male superiority, or as a surprising reversal of male and female gender roles, he has given us plenty of clues to satisfy either argument. As we are able to eternally view the embrace of Pygmalion and Galatea, we can forever debate what message the artist wished to convey. However, the ambiguity of Gerome’s message only adds to the intrigue of this captivating work, which will surely leave viewers in awe for years to come.


Dorin, Alan. “Artifact and Artifice: Views on Life.” Animaland. 2006. Alan Dorin. April,

Harris, Beth. “On Jean-Leon Gerome’s Pygmalion and Galatea at the Met.” Smart
History. 2005. Blogger. 3 April, 2006.

“Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904).” The Modernist Journals Project. 2005. Brown
University. 3 April, 2006.

“Art Now; Role Playing.” The Department of Art History. 2003. University of
Minnesota. 4 April, 2006.

“The Story of Pygmalion and His Statue; Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Book X; 1713 English
Translation.” Pygmalion Design. 2005. Pygmalion Design. 3 April, 2006.


Blogger T. J. Baun said...

As Pygmalion reaches around to embrace Galatea, his right forearm is undoubtedly contacting her left breast. She grasps Pygmalion's hand to control both his exuberance ... and the moment. This captures the passion of purity.

9:58 PM  

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