Saturday, June 12, 2010

Watery Venuses: Sirens and Nymphs by Herbert Draper Part 2

Ulysses and the Sirens (1909)

In our second batch of Herbert Draper's watery women we look at some of the more sinister manifestations of the sea nymph.

Probably his second most famous painting is Ulysses and the Sirens (1909), now in the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, which bought it for £600 in 1910. The former MP for Andover, Lord Faber, also wanted to buy it but Draper preferred the picture to go to a public gallery. He did, however paint a smaller copy for Faber and this is now in the Leeds City Art Gallery.

The image of the predatory woman was popular in the second half of the nineteenth century and not just with Draper. In art, poetry and drama, evil and destructive women were to be found everywhere. Many artists genuinely believed that a female presence would interfere with their artistic process (Delecroix, Courbet, Degas, Munch, and Corot, for example) and never married. Gustave Moreau said "the serious intrusion of women into art would be a disaster". Greek Mythology provided a rich seam of these femmes fatales, which suited Draper perfectly, especially as there were a whole sub-group of predatory women associated with water; playing to his particular skills. Certainly, in the mytholgical world men needed to be very careful about avoiding "the seduction of women encountered beside water, as they invariably adopted the cold engulfing nature of the element". Death by drowning caused by one of these creatures was a popular subject for other artists too; notably JW Waterhouse. At this time this fate can be seen as a metaphor for men's fear of being overwhelmed by women's sexuality. The story of Ulysses and the Sirens perfectly illustrates a situation where men through masculine discipline and willpower have to resist sensual tempation. Draper shows his sirens to be normal, but attractive women in appearance not the half bird monsters of legend. It is not clear whether the mermaid is a separate creature from the sirens or whether once they they board the ship they transform into humans as many mermaid stories say they do on land.

As the sirens rise from the sea and climb onto the boat to face the terrified sailors they entice them with their singing. They are the quintessence of the sexually aggressive, untrustworthy, schizophrenic and treacherous woman so prevalent in art and literature at the time. Certainly, Draper had had a fiance who had unexpectedly broken off an engagement with him; which hit him, emotionally, very hard so this may have given him a personal reason to continually depict this mixture of allure and treachery.

Study of Janet Fletcher for Ulysses

JW Waterhouse Ulysses and the Sirens (1891)

The painting got mixed reviews when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1909, as critics felt that it was not true to Homer and was unfavourably compared to JW Waterhouse's version, Ulysses and the Sirens (1891), who had the sirens, more classically, depicted as bird-women. In fact, Homer never describes the appearance of the sirens at all and other paintings of the period depict them, like Draper, as women of the sea. Whilst one critic, Henry Blackburn, noted at the time that: "We are made to feel how soulless are these creatures of the cruel sea, whose faces are pitiless and whose very breath is a warrant of death" The Times was concerned about the eroticism of Draper's treatment of the sirens. Just as Homer doesn't describe the sirens neither does he say how many there were and in early sketches includes six. Janet Fletcher modelled for the central siren and the sinuous form of Winifred Green, who we shall see again shortly, was the model for the mermaid. Again, the mixture of mermaid and human-formed sirens upset some of the critics.

Lamia (1909)

Whilst not as actively threatening as the sirens advancing upon the sailors, Draper's Lamia, which he worked on concurrently with Ulysses, also depicts a female Greek mythological monster, but the clue to her nature is quite subtle as, at first sight, she just looks like another half dressed classical figure.

Lamia, according to Ancient Greek legend, was the daughter of king Belus of Egypt who became Queen of Libya. Lamia had an affair with Zeus (didn't very woman in the Greek mythological world?) and gave him children. When Hera, Zeus' wife, found out she killed the children. Lamia went mad with grief and started to kill and eat other children (as you do). Later versions of the story had Lamia transformed into a grotesque, shape-shifting, baby-munching serpent. Some versions of the myth (especially after John Keats' poem Lamia (1814)) have her as a woman but a snake below the waist. Later the term lamiae became used for a number of monsters which displayed vampiric tendencies and even as a generic term for a female vampire.

JW Waterhouse Lamia (1905)

JW Waterhouse had already painted a Lamia before Draper's and Draper adopted Waterhouse's idea of depicting Lamia as a woman, with the only reptilian aspects being the snake skins wrapped around them. Oddly, Waterhouse produced another Lamia which was exhibited at the same 1909 Royal Academy Exhibition as Draper's.

JW Waterhouse Lamia (1909)

It would be harder to imagine clearer symbolisim about the two-faced, peril of women. An attractive woman is actually a monster who leads to a horrible death. Draper went further than Waterhouse, who just portrayed his usual blank-faced cutie, by hiring model Winifred Green to give his Lamia some unusual, brooding, reptilian allure. It isn't visible in this reproduction, but Draper also gave his Lamia the vertical pupils of a snake.

Study of Winifred Green for Lamia

This strange correlation between beautiful women and death was ever present at this time with women often portrayed as the carriers of death and disease. The first major Vampire novel, for example, was not Dracula but Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872) which was published 25 years before Bram Stoker's book. In Carmilla, the vampire was a woman and, indeed, the strong implication is that she is a lesbian; the ultimate threatening woman: one with no use for a man whatsoever. As the heroine of the book says:

"Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever".

At this time there was no cure for syphilis and its spread in cities, particularly amongst prostitutes, was a cause of great concern and was blamed by society on the woman rather than the man. In the mid-nineteenth century it has been estimated that one woman in 16 in London was engaged in prostitution, easily the most common profession for city women of the time.

The Flying Fish (1910)

There was nothing so serious with a painting he exhibited at the RA in 1910. Flying Fish is much more akin to his The Foam Sprite from sixteen years earlier and is really one of his "pin-ups", rather than a serious narrative painting, but it has some marvellously rendered waves and the leaping sea nymph has a great deal of movement and energy in her; reproducing the pose and detail of the original sketch with little change. The boldly diagonal composition makes it one of Draper's most successful single figure paintings. The model was Janet Fletcher, who had been the central siren in Ulysses.

Flying Fish study

A similar, but more ambitious, painting called, variously, Clyties of the Mist or The Morning Mists (1912) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1912. Although away from his usual watery element Draper treats the swirls of mountain mists in a very aquatic way.

The Morning Mists (1912)

The female figures are shown as if writhing around in some sort of erotic ecstasy, wisps of mist caressing their bodies like phantom fingers.

The Morning Mists study

Study of Jessie Morris for The Morning Mists

One of the Royal Academy schools, models, an actress, Jessie Morris, posed for all of the very sensuous figures and Draper made studies for the background in the Mont Blanc region. The painting was sold in 2000, having been lost for over seventy years, for £883,000.

Study of Jessie Morris for The Morning Mists

It is a very academic picture for an English artist of the time and shows the influence, perhaps, of his formal French training in the 1880s. It recalls a work by fellow member of the St John's Wood Art Club, Arthur Hacker, The Cloud (1902), who had a similar training in Paris a few years before Draper.

Arthur Hacker The Cloud (1902)

Draper was working on The Summer Seas (1912) at the same time as The Morning Mists; there are studies for both pictures on some sheets of his sketches.

The Summer Seas (1912)

There is no indication here that the girls are sea nymphs or other mythological subjects; just two naked girls by the sea. And why not?

Study for The Summer Seas

The pose of the girl in the next picture we will examine is virtually identical to that of The Summer Seas so were probably done from the same sketches. Draper often reused poses he had done for previous works, sometimes from drawings done decades earlier.

The Kelpie (1913)

Another watery maiden by Draper is The Kelpie (1913), the only painting he exhibited that year. Kelpies were spirits (actually usually described as being in the form of horses, not gorgeous women!) who haunted rivers and lakes and would prey on sailors and other travellers, so they were not nearly as benevolent as nymphs. Draper's Kelpie does have something of the sinister about her, although the picture was not well received when it was exhibited; critics thinking that the girl's figure was "too modern" for a mythological subject. Kelpies were creatures of northern rather than Mediterranean myth and her background setting reflects this. As was noted by Simon Toll in his excellent book on Draper the artist was an expert at combining source material from different places and fusing them together to provide a realistic and convincing looking whole. In the case of The Kelpie the source material appears to be some photographs he took of a stream in Scotland together with some detailed pencil studies he made in Savoie. The rendition of the transparently clear water in the foreground of this picture is nothing short of miraculous.

Halcyone (1915)

For most of this period, Draper concentrated on lucrative portraits but in 1915 he submitted to the Royal Academy one of his last great mythological pictures. Compositionally, it is almost a mirror image of The Kelpie; the centre of the painting being dominated, once more, by large rocks. The central figure is Halcyone who was one of the Pleiades; the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione who was a sea nymph. Draper depicts her by the sea mourning for her husband Ceyx who was lost at sea. Above her head flit kingfishers into which the nymphs turn Halcyone and Ceyx after she throws herself into the sea in grief; the colours of her robes reflecting the plumage of the birds. Hilda Edgell posed for the figure of Halcyone. The painting was accompanied by the following couplet:

"How Halcyone in her bereavement was transformed by water nymphs, and rejoined her mate in eternal summer in the form of the bird that bears her name."

One notable aspect of this picture is the number of nymphs portrayed; a contrast to the one or two he usually painted.

Studies for Halcyone

Worse than the criticism he had endured before was the total lack of interest in this painting when it was exhibited at the Royal Acadeny in the summer of 1915. Perhaps its rather trite depiction of grief simply didn't strike a chord with a British public coming to terms with the enormity of the war across the Channel.

Reveil (1918)

Draper's last mythological painting was Reveil (1918) portraying a post-bacchanialian nymph and a bacchante. Like Halcyone, it was almost entirely ignored by the critics and even, worse, became the first of Draper's mythological paintings not to sell. He never attempted another such painting, although he continued to paint portraits until his death on 22nd September 1920.

Herbert Draper in his studio in St John's Wood 1903

Under the weight of the modernist movement in the twenties Drapers paintings were almost immediately forgotten as old fashioned and somehow embarrassing. It would be seventy years before his pictures started to be appreciated again and started to be included in exhibitions of fashionable, once more, Victorian classicists. Fortunately, his family kept his pictures and sketches together.

Study for Reveil

Agent Triple P went to the exhibition at the Tate in 2000 called Exposed: The Victorian Nude where Draper's, The Gates of Dawn, The Lament for Icarus and Ulysses and the Sirens were all triumphantly displayed. We look forward with interest to the price that The Sea Maiden fetches next week at Christies to see if it confirms the rehabilitation of one of the technically finest artists of the Late Victorian and Edwardian ages.

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