Benedict Read describes a new kind of sculpture that took form at the end of the nineteenth century, claiming that

what was significant about the work was the way in which it treated the human form, rendering in a naturalistic and fairly detailed way the musculature of a figure in action, achieving this by careful and detailed modeling, and reflecting this modeling directly in the variegated surface of the bronze. [p. 289]

In comparing Giles' Hero to a more typical Victorian rendering of the female nude, such as John Bell's Andromeda (1851), we glimpse discrepancies in subject matter, pose, surface treatment, and size. Bell's sculpture, which currently graces the gardens of the Royal Collection in Osborne, represents the mythical Andromeda, daughter of the Egyptian royals King Cepheus and Queena Cassiopeia. As the story goes, Cassiopeia stirred the wrath of the Poseidon by claiming her beauty equal to the Nereids (sea nymphs). The sea god, by consequence, sent a flood to the land and a sea-monster to the destroy everything in sight. An oracle predicted that the fury would persist until Cepheus and Cassiopeia offered their daughter to the monster, chaining her to a sea-side rock, the vision that Bell depicts. ("Andromeda" www.wikipedia.org) Perseus, passing the princess, falls enamored of her beauty, initially mistaking her for a statue. Realizing his mistake as he sees her streaming tears, he saves her, slays the sea monster, and marries her (www. uni-trier.de).

This scene became a popular subject for history painting, from Rembrandt's 1629 portrayal to Sir Edward Poynter's 1872 version. Bell renders the helpless princess in bronze, calling attention to the irony of the myth's reversal in that the viewer actually sees a statue, rather than imagining one. The medium of this piece held significance in that the bronze was manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Company, thus honoring its British heritage. "(The Art Journal, p. 225) Her stance is rather static, and although depicted in the dynamic contrapposto position, it lacks the mid-action drama of other representations of her body, like Poynter's and Rembrandt's.

Her skin appears simplified and smoothed over, as many classical portrayals did. Here, we witness the Rubens-esque rendering of curves and voluptuousness, omitting any sign of musculature, blemish, or physical imperfection. In terms of size, Bell works in lifelike proportions, creating a piece large enough to suggest the actual appearance of the woman he depicts.

Hero by Margaret M. Giles. Left: right three-quarters view. Right: rear.

Click on images for larger pictures and additional information.

Margaret Giles Hero embodies the New Sculpture to which Read refers, defying Bell's classicism with regards to surface treatment, size, and pose. Giles focuses on the physical specifics of the figure, rendering in full detail ankles, elbows, thigh muscles, facial features. She pays equal attention to the rock on which Hero sits, situating the figure and highlighting the strength of its foundation. The treatment of the figure, "rendered in a naturalistic and fairly detailed way," reflects the true-to-life nature of the works of the New Sculpture (Read, p. 289). More than the respective artists' rendering of surface, however, it is the pose of the figures that sets them apart most profoundly. By contrast to the statue-like nature of Bell's Andromeda, Hero appears contorted and dynamic. Additionally, her stance defies typical feminine postures, trading the submissive contrapposto for a more withdrawn, self-protective crouch. This pose enables the structure to compose from any angle, whereas Andromeda reads primarily from the front. In terms of size, Bell works on a grand scale, while Hero functions on a smaller level. Perhaps this had to do with the nature of the respective commissions for each piece, or perhaps it had to do with the limitations of medium. In any case, the sizes of these works fit the character of each one. Andromeda, the embodiment of the Victorian fixation with classicism, Hero, an example of the shift toward a more dynamic kind of representation.

Discussion Questions

1. Analyze the poses of the respective figures in terms of passivity and femininity. What about their poses determines the overall feeling of the two pieces?

2. Benedict Read observes a shift toward more representational sculpture toward the end of the ninteeenth century, as the fad of glorifying the classical died out. Was this artistic shift entirely arbitrary, or did the more realistic sculpting reflect the more contemporary subject matter?

3. Do the respective sizes of the sculpture have any bearing on their overall effect?

4. Discourses exists on the rise of the middle class in the ninteeenth century and their need to prove status via material means. Which piece would fulfill this desire more effectively, keeping in mind the ideological implications of each one?

Bibliography

Read, Benedict. Victorian Sculpture. New Haven: Yale University, 1982.

The Art Journal, Illustrated Catalogue. 1851, p. 225

"John Bell: Andromeda" (site at the University of Trier, Germany). Viewed 5 March 2007..

"Andromeda." www.wikipedia.org.


Victorian Web Homepage Visual Arts Sculpture Margaret Giles

Last modified 4 January 2005