In a set of four oil paintings (1868-70), The Godhead Fires, The Hand Refrains, The Heart Desires and The Soul Attains, Sir Edward Burne-Jones interprets Ovid's myth of Pygmalion in which a young sculptor, disgusted by the female sex in general, creates a marble statue and falls hopelessly in love with his own projections and conceptions of the feminine ideal. The goddess Venus takes pity on the artist and animates the statue so that it can be his bride. The story of Pygmalion both recalls and reverses the Biblical account of the creation of Eve as Pygmalion becomes the maker of his own perfect match. The wasting conditions of the artist's sexual desire, the fact that it is directed essentially towards himself instead of towards an actual woman, undercuts the role of Pygmalion as productive creator.
In the myth of Pygmalion, the woman serves to complete the man's own lack of fullness by reflecting back at him the fantasies he most enjoys. The figure of Pygmalion recalls many of the self-obsessed male speakers in Robert Browning's poetry. The misogyny of Pygmalion for whom no living woman meets his standards can be compared to the Duke in Browning's "My Last Duchess" who substitutes a portrait over which he has complete control for the living Duchess. Pygmalion literally molds a woman to reflect his own fantasies. Similarly, in "Porphyria's Lover," the controlling male speaker's attempt to falsely represent Porphyria's behavior as self-centered is in fact a reflection of himself. The idea of a narcissistic male's sexual mastery of a woman in the Pygmalion series echoes the sexist notions of the myth of Andromeda's rescue by Perseus in which the female depends on the male to save and liberate her.
1. The architectural settings of Burne-Jones' four scenes are inconsistent and seem to reflect both early 15th-century Flemish art as well as Italian Mannerism. How do his choices of settings affect our interpretation of the myth?
2. Burne-Jones casts the figures in flat and primitive as well as classically beautiful, full-bodied Michelangelesque styles. Why this conflict and inconsistency?
3. The paintings in this series have significantly more depth perspective than the Perseus Cycle Paintings. In fact, in The Soul Attains and The Hand Refrains, experimentation with space and depth seems to be a major emphasis. Why?
4. What do these renderings of the Pygmalion myth reveal about Burne-Jones' personal attitudes towards males who control the female subject by making her into an art object?
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.
Last modified 26 October 2004