The Pygmalion series by Edward Burne-Jones breaks the story into four discrete paintings. First, in The Heart Desires, Burne-Jones paints Pygmalion in a moment of contemplation. He is alone in a room apart from three statues in the background, and two real women walk past the open doorway. Burne-Jones uses warm, earthy colors and light outside in contrast to the white, more ethereal light that shines through the windows into the room. This discrepancy indicates Pygmalion's separation from the outside world, and emphasizes the idea that there are two worlds at work in the painting; the outside reality and the interior fantasy of Pygmalion's mind. Indeed, we can look upon the interior of the room in which Pygmalion stands as a figurative representation of his mental interior; he is enclosed in a space of fantasy. In this context the three statues, illuminated by the white light, emerge as Pygmalion's inspiration or the vision of the feminine ideal which he desires to attain. Importantly, the statues in the background may represent the three graces, the daughters of the goddess Venus who later brings Pygmalion's statue to life. Whether literally present in the room or not, they appear to foreshadow the creation of Pygmalion's own statue.
In Ovid's version of the tale Pygmalion carves the statue out of ivory, yet Burne-Jones skips to The Hand Refrains which depicts the finished statue with Pygmalion looking on. Burne-Jones' decision to skip this central artistic act causes Pygmalion somewhat to lose his agency in the paintings. Furthermore, the Ovidian version of the story includes passages in which Pygmalion foolishly treats the statue like a human — he brings little gifts for his creation and rests its head on a pillow to sleep. We see nothing of this in Burne-Jones' depiction.
The third painting entitled The Godhead Fires shows the statue bending, arms entwined with those of Venus herself. Pygmalion is entirely absent which accentuates Venus's power in the story in contrast to Ovid's version, in which the ivory body softens into flesh in the arms of Pygmalion as her lover. Pygmalion's impotence continues into the final painting, The Soul Attains, in that he kneels meekly at the feet of the new woman; his back bent and his eyes looking up at her with infatuation.
1. Why does Pygmalion look so distressed and horrified when he looks at the statue? Why is this painting named, The Hand Refrains?
2. In the first verion of the Pygmalion series, Burne Jones used darker colors and harder lines. What does the lighter tone of the second series do to the impact of the paintings?
3. Is Venus's act of bringing the statue to life artistic? Is Pygmalion artistic? Who is the greater artist here?
4. In the first version of The Godhead Fires, Venus is depicted wearing an opaque blue robe, whereas in the second version she is covered by an almost transparent cloth. In fact, Venus' sheer clothing makes her look very much like the naked statue coming to life. In addition, the intertwined arms of Venus and the statue make them look almost like a single being. What could this mean?
5. Burne-Jones' paintings do not indicate Pygmalion's folly which is apparent in Ovid's and medieval versions of the tale. Does Burne-Jones provide any clues how he wants the viewer to feel about Pygmalion?
Last modified 28 October 2006