Victorian artists’ representations of the nude were often sanctioned by reference to literary or mythological figures. Below is a key giving brief descriptions of the stories and characters most frequently appearing in works shown in this exhibition.
ANDROMEDA – see under PERSEUS
BRITOMART and AMORET appear in books III and IV of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (q.v.). Britomart is a female knight, the daughter of King Ryence, and an embodiment of chastity. She has fallen in love with Sir Artegall (champion of Justice) after seeing him in a magic mirror, and Spenser recounts her adventures in her quest for him. These involve
an encounter with Amoret, who is married to Sir Scudamour, but has been carried off by Busyrane, a vile enchanter symbolising unfaithful love. Amoret is imprisoned in Busyrane’s castle until released by Britomart.
SIR CALEPINE and SERENA are lovers who appear in Book VI of The Faerie Queene (q.v.). They were discovered by the knight Sir Calidore and, when Serena was carried off by the Blatant Beast, Calidore rescued her. Later, Serena becomes lost and is captured by savages, who strip her naked and tie her to an altar as a human sacrifice; she is rescued by Sir Calepine: ‘Serena found of Salvages / By Calepine is freed’.
CANDAULES, described in the histories written by Herodotus (480-425 BC), was King of Lydia and married to the beautiful Nyssia. Candaules was so proud of her beauty that he arranged for his favourite officer, Gyges, to see her naked. In revenge, Nyssia says that either Candaules or Gyges must die; Gyges kills Candaules and takes over the kingdom, becoming King himself, with Nyssia as Queen.
CIRCE is a sorceress who appears in The Iliad (q.v.). Ulysses and the crew of his ship were washed up on the shore of her island, and she turned half of the crew into pigs. Ulysses was given a charm by the god Hermes, which protected him from Circe’s magic. When he threatened to kill Circe, she released the crew from their enchantment.
CUPID – see under PSYCHE
DAEDALUS and ICARUS appear in Ovid’s Metamorphoses(q.v.). Daedalus was a clever designer and inventor who, having had a prosperous life on Crete, angered the king, Minos, and had to find a way to escape. He made wings out of feathers and wax to allow himself and his son Icarus to fly away. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, which would melt the wax. However Icarus, thrilled by the excitement of flying, went too close to the sun, melting the wax holding his wings together. He fell into the sea and drowned.
DIANA is the Roman name of the goddess known to the Greeks as Artemis, whose twin brother was Apollo or Phoebus, the sun god. Diana was a virgin goddess, but traditionally presided over child-birth and protected small children. She was also goddess of the hunt, and identified with the moon; she is often symbolised by a crescent moon.
ENDYMION was, in Greek mythology, a beautiful shepherd boy to whom Zeus gave eternal life by allowing him to sleep perpetually. He was also the subject of a poem published in 1818 by John Keats, for whose work there was a revival of enthusiasm at the end of the 19th century.
The FAERIE QUEENE by Edmund Spenser (1552?-99) is a poem in six books published between 1590 and 1596. Widely acknowledged as one of the most important literary works of the English Renaissance, Spenser’s Christian allegory was used by many Victorian artists as a vehicle for introducing the nude to a mainly Protestant audience. The poems focus around a series of quests undertaken by knights of the Faerie Queene (signifying Elizabeth I).
GODIVA was a legendary 11th century Anglo-Saxon heroine, married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia, in the time of Edward the Confessor. Leofric imposed a tax on the population of Coventry. Godiva begged her husband to lift the tax, and he jokingly promised he would if she rode naked through the streets at noon. She asked the people of Coventry to stay indoors with their window shutters closed, which most of them did. Alfred, first Baron Tennyson (1809-92) published a poem titled Godiva in 1842, which helped to turn her into a popular national heroine and symbol of British independence before the Norman Conquest.
The GOLDEN ASS is a collection of loosely-linked stories full of supernatural events, written in eleven books of prose by Lucius Apuleius (born about 114 AD), a North African writer who reworked Greek works for his Latin readers; most influential is the story of Cupid and Psyche (q.v.).
HYPATIA, or New Foes with an Old Face, 1853, is a historical novel by the clergyman and author Charles Kingsley (1819-75). It is set in Alexandria in the 5th century, and deals with a Greek neoplatonic philosopher named Hypatia, who was stripped naked by a mob of fanatical Christian monks, and dragged to the altar of a church, where she was killed.
THE ILIAD was thought to have been written by Homer (who lived around 1050 or 850 BC). It describes the war waged against Troy in order to recover Helen, who had been carried off by Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy. The main hero of the poem is Achilles.
LILITH, in Jewish myth, was the first wife of Adam. Often shown as a seductive, long-haired demoness, she abandoned Adam after he denied her equality, and vowed vengeance on her successor Eve by murdering children and pregnant women.
LYSISTRATA, 411 BC, a play by the Greek comic dramatist Aristophanes (c.448-380 BC), describes a scheme through which the women of Athens and Sparta ended the war between the two states. Led by Lysistrata, they refuse to have sex with the men until peace is declared. Aubrey Beardsley’s drawing (cat. no. 83) shows Cinesias, who has just returned from war, vainly trying to seduce his wife.
METAMORPHOSES, written by the Roman author Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BC-18 AD), is a long narrative telling a number of disconnected stories within an overall historical framework. The work was very widely read during the Renaissance, but was most popular in Britain during the early-17th century. Characters from Ovid’s tales continued to be used by British artists throughout the 19th century.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, 1595-6, a comedy by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), was popular with Victorian painters as it offered the chance to represent a fairy world which also suggested an uncorrupted British Arcadia.
MUSIDORA and DAMON appear in Summer, one of the books which make up Thomson’s The Seasons (q.v.). Damon is in love with Musidora, but she has not responded to his advances. One hot summer’s day, Damon accidentally sees Musidora take off her clothes and bathe naked in a stream: ‘As from her naked limbs of glowing white, / Harmonious swelled by nature’s finest hand, / In folds loose-floating fell the fainter lawn, / And fair exposed she stood’.
NARCISSUS from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (qv), was a beautiful young man, son of the river god Cephisus and the nymph Leiriope, who was predicted to have a long life as long as he didn’t see himself. Laying down one day by a beautiful clear pool, Narcissus saw his reflection for the first time. He immediately fell hopelessly in love, and lay for many hours gazing at himself. Despairing at being unable to possess the object of his passion, he killed himself.
OBERON and TITANIA are the King and Queen of the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (q.v.). They fall out over a changeling child, and Oberon casts a spell over Titania which causes her to fall in love with the first living creature she sees on waking. This happens to be a weaver named Nick Bottom, to whom Puck has given an ass’s head. By the end of the play, Titania is restored to herself and reconciled with Oberon. Titania was popular amongst Victorian painters, epitomising a Victorian ideal of ethereal womanhood.
THE ODYSSEY was thought to have been written by Homer (who lived around 1050 or 850 BC). It is a Greek epic poem describing the adventures of the hero Ulysses (also known as Odysseus) on his way home to Ithaca after the siege of Troy.
PANDORA, as described by Hesiod (8th century BC), was the first woman ever made, formed from clay at Zeus’s request. The gods gave her every possible good gift, but Zeus gave her a box, which she was to present to her husband on marriage. Versions of the myth vary, but Harry Bates’s sculpture (cat no 128) shows Pandora about to open the box, releasing all the evils afflicting humanity. In this way Pandora is often seen as the classical counterpart of the Christian Eve, another ‘first woman’ accused of releasing evil into the world.
PERSEUS and ANDROMEDA appear in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (q.v.). Poseidon (the god of the sea) had sent a sea-monster to ravage the coast of north Africa where Andromeda lived. The terrified inhabitants were persuaded that the only way to be rid of the terror was to sacrifice Andromeda to the monster. She was chained to a rock, waiting to be devoured by a sea monster at sunrise, when Perseus, in his winged sandals, flew down, distracting the monster by his shadow on the sea. He hacked the creature to death with his sword and claimed Andromeda’s hand in marriage.
PHRYNE was a famous Greek ‘Hetaira’ (a kind of high-class prostitute) of the 4th century BC, described by the author Athenaeus. During her life she was seen as an ideal of female beauty, and is generally believed to have been the model for the celebrated Aphrodite of Cnidos, by the sculptor Praxiteles, and the Aphrodite Anadyomene, by the painter Apelles. One of her lovers was a famous Greek orator, Hypereides, who defended her in court when she was tried for having dared to impersonate Aphrodite. She was acquitted because of her beauty, which Hypereides dramatically displayed by exposing her body to the jury at the climax of his speech.
PLUTUS was the god of wealth (hence the word ‘plutocrat’), often symbolically represented as being blind (so wealth would be distributed indiscriminately), lame (because wealth comes slowly), and with wings (because wealth always disappears more quickly than it appears).
PSYCHE. The story of Cupid and Psyche is the allegorical centrepiece of The Golden Ass (q.v.) by Apulieus. Psyche was a mortal, so beautiful that jealous Venus sent her son Cupid to fire an arrow which would make her fall in love with someone ugly and low-born. However, Cupid fell under Psyche’s spell and visited her by night, refusing to let her look at him. One night Psyche took a lamp and looked at his face, discovering to her joy that he was very handsome. However, she accidentally let a drop of hot lamp oil fall on to his shoulder. He woke and realised she had disobeyed him, and returned, wounded, to Venus. Bereft, Psyche tries to commit suicide by drowning herself in a river; she is saved by the river god, and comforted by Pan. After much redemptive suffering, she is allowed to marry Cupid, and Zeus placates Venus by making Psyche immortal.
PYGMALION and Galatea are described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (q.v.). Pygmalion was King of Cyprus and a skilful sculptor. He refused to marry, but spent all his time working on an ivory statue of a beautiful woman, which he called Galatea. He fell madly in love with his own creation, and prayed to Venus for a wife as beautiful as the sculpture. Venus breathed life into the ivory, so that when Pygmalion went home and kissed the statue, he discovered that it was alive. In the 20th century the tale was transformed in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, first performed in 1913, and in a 1957 musical version, My Fair Lady, later turned into a film starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, and recently revived at the National Theatre with Martine McCutcheon in the lead role.
THE SAINT’S TRAGEDY, 1848, is a dramatic poem by Charles Kingsley (1819-75) which deals with the life of a 13th-century saint, Elizabeth of Hungary. On the death of her husband, Andrew II of Hungary, she declines to become regent, and opts instead for a life of prayer and seclusion. At the moment of her renunciation, Kingsley describes how Elizabeth tore off her clothes and vowed to go ‘naked and barefoot through the world to follow / My naked Lord.’
THE SEASONS, 1726-30 by James Thomson (1700-48) was, in the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the most popular, and frequently reprinted and illustrated, of English poems. It consists of four books, each dealing with one of the seasons.
SIRENS, beautiful female creatures who sang enchanting songs that enticed sailors to their deaths on the rocks, appear in The Oyssey (q.v.). Circe warned Ulysses and his men that they would be sailing past the Sirens’ island. Ulysses managed to resist their lure by stufÞng his crewmen’s ears with wax so that they could not hear the songs, and having himself tied to the mast of his ship, so that he could not move. One of the sirens, named Ligeia, was painted by Rossetti.
The SIXTH SATIRE of the late Roman poet and satirist Juvenal (c.60-136 AD), was one of sixteen rhetorical pieces full of indignation about the vices of the age; the sixth satire was an infamous diatribe ‘against Women’. One of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of this work is included in the exhibition.
The SPHINX was a monster with a woman’s head, a lion’s body, a serpent’s tail and eagle’s wings, who asked a riddle of everyone who passed her; if they could not solve it, she ate them. Only Oedipus had the answer, and the Sphinx, having been outwitted, threw herself off the mountain to her death.
THETIS, who appears in GF Watts’s painting, is a Nereid (sea nymph) described in The Iliad (qv). She became the mother of Achilles, whom she is said to have dipped in the River Styx to make him immortal; only the heel by which she held him was not protected, and Achilles was indeed killed by a wound to his heel.
TEUCER, the subject of Hamo Thornycroft’s bronze (displayed at the entrance to the exhibition), appears in The Iliad (qv). He was the half-brother of Ajax, and the greatest archer in the Greek army at the siege of Troy.
ULYSSES – see under CIRCE, ODYSSEY and SIRENS
UNA and the lion appear in Book I of The Fairie Queene (q.v.). Una, who represents truth or true religion, is protected by the Redcrosse Knight, so named because ‘on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore, / The deare remembrance of his dying Lord’. He represents the Anglican Church, and is the protector of the virgin Una. Una’s beauty saves her from attack by the Lion of England, who also becomes her devoted protector.