As a mischievous new display opens at Tate Britain, we meet the curator to track down the elusive nymph in nymphomania 

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A woman who can’t get enough sex - or just a normal girl who gets mocked down the pub. That’s how most of us know the word ‘nympho’ these days, and while the director Lars von Trier recently delighted in shocking audiences down to their cotton socks with his big screen portrayal of nymphomania, a new display at Tate Britain reveals a much more tricksy history.

Predictably, this erotic story begins with the ancient Greeks.

‘In Greek mythology, the nymph was a female character who could either resist male desire, or she could be sexually promiscuous herself, to the point of aggression,’ Cora Gilroy-Ware, the curator of Bodies of Nature, explains. ‘So you have stories of Daphne, a nymph, running away from Apollo, the god of music - but then on the other hand, there are narratives where the nymph is fully in control, as in sculptures like Hylas Surprised by the Naiades, where two nymphs are drawing a young male victim into the water with erotic intentions.’

As you might have gathered, the nymph - a creature of nature, usually seen bathing in pools or wandering in woodlands - was always feminine, often seductive and sometimes mischievous. 

What she was not, it seems, was either inappropriately young or a man’s subservient fantasy. ‘People have heard of Nabokov’s Lolita and the nymphet, and that confuses things because nymphs are not about prepubescence at all. Female poets like Mary Wollstonecraft later seized on them as very empowered, liberated figures - a female dissident, really’ reflects Gilroy-Ware. ‘They are an ancient idea of a femininity that’s outside the dominant ways of being a woman, and all of modern society’s constructions of that.’

This sounds familiar. For all the 21st-century ‘empowerment’ of the likes of Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, are they actually just new versions of an ancient idea?

‘Oh yes, in a way,’ agrees Gilroy-Ware. ‘I actually have a whole theory about how Rihanna is a nymph. Because of things like how she refuses to wear a bra, and yet she’s totally strong and empowered in her body. But then to me, Miley Cyrus is not like that. That hyper-childlike, hyper-provocative image seems sort of grotesque yet also sterile, which I don’t think is nymph-like at all.’

Surely, then, the nymph raises the same sorts of issues as a hot-panted Rihanna. Are they feminist icons or slaves to sexuality? 

For better or worse, the nymphs made it through history with minimal questioning. In the Renaissance, these depictions were rediscovered and celebrated in 16th and 17th century literature and art. ‘The pastoral world of nymphs became a sort of code - it was a way of representing sexuality in socially acceptable terms. Look at Titian’s provocative Nymph and Shepherd, for example.’

 Being rendered in paint helps, of course. Society’s attitudes towards the real thing were less open-minded. 

The first published use of the word ‘nymphomania’ pops up in a Scottish medical book in 1769. Two years later, it was the subject of a book in itself, written by a French physician, JTD de Bienville. It was totally radical. ‘No one had dared devote a whole book to something as ‘trivial’ as female sexuality before, it just wasn’t done,’ says Gilroy-Ware.

Nonetheless, it wouldn’t have done much to coax anyone out of hiding. Sufferers were ‘monsters in human shape’, the writer said. Their excessive sexual impulses would begin in the imagination, before the physical symptoms occurred. They would ‘hiss, applaud, deny, affirm, assume ridiculous gestures, throw their bodies into strange contortions, attempt to stimulate the passions of men by the loosest language, and to endure success, affect a disregard for attire approaching to nakedness.’ The last stage in the disease was death.

It strikes me that said author may have considered Britain’s towns littered with ‘nymphomaniacs’ on any given Saturday night. Were men subject to such creative diagnoses?

Actually, yes. There was a term for the male equivalent to this female affliction, says Gilroy-Ware; but ‘satyriasis’ - named after satyrs, the mythological male figures who would cavort with nymphs - didn’t quite catch on. ‘It was rarely diagnosed, because male hypersexuality wasn’t seen as a problem, and though we’re aware of sex addiction, obviously no one has heard of the word today.’

Back in the 18th century, spurred on by the term she’d inspired, the nymph had found fame. In 1784, Joshua Reynolds, the president of the Royal Academy, painted the provocative A Nymph and Cupid. Its reproductions sold widely - particularly to women. ‘Later, in the 19th century, I think the original was actually sold to the Prime Minister of the time, who hung it in his daughter’s bedroom,’ recalls Gilroy-Ware. ‘There’s all sorts of examples that show these aren’t just male artists coming along and trying to represent female desire and then selling it back to male consumers. It’s more complicated than that.’

It was a time when fashion was emerging as an interest - and with the French Revolutionary Wars starting in the 1790s, viewers sought an escape. Magazines talked about getting ‘dolled up like a nymph’, and though painted by men, they became a liberating aspiration for women - again, not unlike today’s celebrities. Artists seized the opportunity.

Among them, a Britain painter named Thomas Stothard, better known for literary paintings of the Canterbury Tales, began painting romantic scenes of naked nymphs bathing or caressing cupid, and again, they were wildly popular. ‘He has this charming, cartoon-like style that was totally different to what others were doing. People loved these sort of fluid bodies that were almost decorative, which worked so well with the pleasurable nature of the nymphs.’

A backlash by the establishment followed. Stothard’s style became an example of how not to paint, and critics said that he was simply emulating the old masters - badly.

Stothard’s nymphs also didn’t age well. One aspect of the old masters that he and his contemporaries were indeed trying to copy was the glowing appearance of a Rubens or a Titian. ‘They mixed things like soap and wax and all these essential oils into their paints,’ explains Gilroy-Ware. ‘I see it as a sort of precursor to cinema really, because they were trying to create these sensational images.’

What led to a gleaming surface at first left serious cracks later. Despite a lot of skilled conservation work, you can see this particularly in the largest work in the display, Nature Blowing Bubbles for her Children.

Over the Victorian era, interest in the nymph and its art historical significance lessened, and Stothard’s nymphs, along with those of Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and others, have been sitting in the Tate stores for most of the past 150 years.

They now make up Tate Britain’s current display, on the nymphs painted between 1780 and 1840, revived by the passion of its curator - coincidentally just as audiences may have seen Lars von Trier’s controversial, bare-all Nymphomaniac films, telling the story of a female sex addict. Is the link still relevant?

‘It’s funny, I feel like the words ‘nympho’ and ‘nymphomaniac’ are so tied to porn now, and audiences are so desensitised that the shock value of a film like that has to rely on quite graphic images, whereas the nymph was always more about the imagination. The development of the ‘disease’ has overshadowed that meaning in a way,’ reflects Gilroy-Ware.  

So, what will 21st century visitors make of the naughty nymphs? Along with Rihanna, do they find themselves in more divisive, post-feminism territory? Or will they be appreciated like never before?

‘Yes, it can be difficult. Feminist discourse has moved on, and I think it can be hard for people coming to an exhibition to overcome the idea that the nymphs are just objectified women. 

But I really feel that the nymph isn’t just a pretty object. She’s empowered. She’s a radical. Several paintings show groups of women surrounding single male figures, so I think that’ll come across.’  

 BP Spotlight: Bodies of Nature is at Tate Britain until 19 October