The story of Pygmalion and Galatea is an enchanting myth about a Cypriot sculptor who fell in love with his own sculpture. He prays to goddess Aphrodite (aka Venus) to bring the sculpture to life for it to be his wife. The goddess grants his wish, and the bottom line is, Pygmalion and his creation lived happily ever after.
The myth was turned into an erotic novelette when Ovid (43 BCE-17 AD) adapted the story in his Metamorphosis (8 AD). But even this perfumed version gives away the inconspicuous hope of an artist that his creation might spring to life one day and so been inspiring many since its Ancient Greek origin. Franz von Stuck (1863 – 1928), Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) and François Boucher (1703-1770) are among those in line. But one of the most favoured versions was portrayed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) in his series of four panels shown below.
Pygmalion and Galatea I: The Heart Desires
Pygmalion is seen here in his studio, with a look of deep thought etched on his face. Disgusted by the debauched lifestyle of the local women, he decided to stay celibate and devote his life to his craft. Oblivious to the women peering through his doorway, nor to his previous statues that remind us of the Three Graces, he sees in his mind an image of the perfect woman he’s yet to create.
Pygmalion and Galatea II: The Hand Refrains
One day, Pygmalion has completed his creation of a woman of his dreams and hopelessly falls in love with it. In the moment of inspiration, he names the figurine, Galatea, meaning “she who is white like milk”. Countless were the nights and days he spent staring at her.
Tools and instruments, including the almost translucent soft brush, scattered beneath its feet show the work he’s put into perfecting it.
Pygmalion and Galatea III: The Godhead Fires
In the meantime, the city was celebrating the festival in the name of the goddess Aphrodite. While making offerings to Aphrodite, Pygmalion prayed with all his heart and soul, for the goddess to bring his statue to life. Touched by his deep veneration, the goddess visits his studio and was amazed by the beauty she’d discovered and grants the artists his wish.
Pygmalion and Galatea IV: The Soul Attains
Upon returning home Pygmalion noticed a flush on the cheeks of the sculpture, and slowly he realised that his prayer was heard. He embraces Galatea, and life breathed into the cold marble.
Their love blossomed and wedding vows were exchanged. With the blessings of the goddess Aphrodite, they lived happily ever after. The couple had a son, Paphos, who later founded the city Paphos in Cyprus.
Burne-Jones made two series of oil painting illustrating the story. The first series of paintings, consisting of four panels were made between 1868-70, at an early stage of the artists’ career. With monochromatic tones and rather rigid forms, at the time the artist was still in the process of developing his style and was emulating his mentor and friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The second series, shown here, however, were made between 1875-1878, with a much brighter palette and had the solemn and statuesque style of figures he’s known for. Besides, this series of paintings had secured Burne-Jones as one of the most influential artists among the members of his group.