In eighteenth-century Britain many believed that art should convey moral or ideological meaning, and that the idealised human form was the primary way of putting that meaning across. By the closing decades of the century this belief was breaking down, yet artists remained invested in images of ideal beauty. The figure of the nymph embodied physical perfection, but was also associated with erotic themes that lay outside traditional artistic discourse. The works in this display focus on the nymph with or without her frequent companions: satyrs, infant cupids and other pastoral characters. Emblematic of bodily pleasures, these beings were protected from allegations of depravity by their origins in classical civilisation and their relationship to nature.
The moral ambiguity of the nymph was emphasised when, in 1775, an English translation of the first book on nymphomania – excessive sexual desire in women – was published in London. Arguing that arousal begins in the mind, the text influenced representations of pleasure as artists sought to engage with the new concept of the erotic imagination.
The early nineteenth century was marked by war. To escape from reality and from more traditional, monumental, responses to antiquity, artists turned increasingly to images of pleasure. As a result, in the post-Napoleonic Wars period, the nymph proliferated in art as well as poetry.