Left: Obedience. Sir Edward John Poynter Bt PRA RWS (1839-1919. Watercolour on paper, 6 X 4 ½ inches (15.3 X 11.2 cm). Signed with EJP monogram and dated 1868 lower right. Private collection. Right: Obedience. Chromolithograph on paper, 61/4 X 45/8 inches (15.8 X 11.9 cm). The colors of the lithograph above are accurate. Private collection. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Obedience is one of a series of four watercolours that Poynter executed as preparatory to illustrations for The Nobility of Life, its Graces and Virtues, published by Frederick Warne and Company in 1869. This image of Adam and Eve appeared as a colour plate on page 125, accompanied by a quotation from Paradise Lost:

My author and disposer, what thou bidd'st
Unargued I obey; so GOD ordains.' - MILTON

Milton's poem was apparently so popular with Poynter that his son recalled his father was able to quote it in its entirety by heart (Baldwin, Macdonald Sisters, 165). The other three watercolours Poynter produced for the book were Mercy, Cheerfulness, and Youth. The four watercoloours were exhibited together at the Dudley Gallery in 1869, no. 519.

This watercolour of Obedience is typical of Poynter's work from this period. The figure of Adam closely resembles the heroic male nudes seen in his Israel in Egypt of 1867 and The Catapult of 1868. Both paintings, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy to great acclaim, helped secure Poynter's election as an associate of that body in 1869. The figure of Adam is clearly influenced by Michelangelo, a painter for whom Poynter had a life-long admiration. As Malcolm Bell has stated:

This passionate devotion - it can be adequately described in no colder phase - was of very early growth, dating from his first visit to Rome in 1853...That he did and does fully appreciate the distinguished qualities of the other artists named above need not be doubted, but no one of them has exercised so deep and lasting an influence on his artistic development as Michel Angelo. On a close and intelligent study of his methods he has very largely founded his own, and the spirit that inspired both may pardonably be denoted a rightly scientific one. [3-5]

In 1879, in his ninth Slade lecture, Poynter praised Michelangelo:

"The third condition, that which distinguishes the true artist from the mere painter possessed of poetic conceptions, is that the action of the figure shall be expressed in the most beautiful manner, and shall be studied so as to give the artist an opportunity for the display of the highest beauty of the form, whether it be nude or draped...All these conditions Michelangelo fulfilled in a higher degree than any artist that has lived since the best Greek period. [236-37]

Poynter was obviously influenced by Michelangelo long before his brother-in-law Edward Burne-Jones, and his enthusiasm for this Renaissance master may have been at least partially responsible for Burne-Jones' later interest in him.

The pose of the figure of Eve may have been influenced by that of the Virgin Mary in Burne-Jones' early watercolour The Annunciation (The Flower of God) of 1862-63. It would be interesting to speculate if Poynter, either consciously or unconsciously, used Burne-Jones’ pose of the Virgin Mary, interpreted typologically as the new Eve who was to help redeem mankind through the death of her son Jesus Christ on the cross.


Ed. Valentine, L. T. The Nobility of Life, its Graces and Virtues. London: Frederick Warne and Company, 1869.

Baldwin, A.W. The Macdonald Sisters, London: Peter Davies, 1960.

Bell, Malcolm. The Drawings of Sir Edward J. Poynter Bart. P.R.A. London: George Newnes Ltd., 1906.

Poynter, Edward. Ten Lectures on Art. London: Chapman & Hall, 1879.

Last modified 23 August 2021