Friday, June 3, 2011
Edward John Poynter - Andromeda
signed with monogram and dated 1869 l.r.
oil on canvas
51 by 36cm.; 20 by 14in.
Lot Sold. Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 361,250 GBP
Royal Academy, 1870, no.137
'Within the energy, ability and expression of Andromeda Poynter is at his very best: a man with a mission, intoxicated by the human form, and bent on further discovery.'
(Julian Freeman, Life at Arm's Length, Sir Edward Poynter Bt, GCVO, PRA, 1836-1919,
'The subject has been painted time without number. None supplies a better motive for
the display of idealised female form. Such work now appeals to a small and special
circle, and the painter who obeys the propriety of his own specially cultivated
imagination towards this unpopular and unprofitable domain of his art deserves all
honour.' (Times, 18 May 1870, p.6)
'Choice and out of the common. Andromeda has graceful lines; the forms are lovely;
and the expression of the turned head, while quiet, is deeply tragic. The scarf carried by the wind recalls the drapery of Titian's Ariadne: the picture indeed, may claim consanguinity with the Venetian school: it catches inspiration from Tintoret, the grandest of the Venetians.' (Art Journal, 1870, p.165)
In the epic poetry of Greece Andromeda was the fated daughter of King Cepheus and
Queen Cassiopeia of Ethiopia. Doomed to be given in sacrifice to a sea-monster
named Cetus after her vain mother offended the gods by claiming to be more beautiful
than the Nereids, the princess was bound to rocks on the shore to await the beast.
Returning from slaying the gorgon Medusa, Perseus saw the beautiful Andromeda and
vowed to save her, to win her hand in marriage. The subject was painted repeated
throughout the nineteenth century with a famous depiction by Leighton of 1891 (Leeds
City Art Gallery), an entire cycle of paintings by Burne-Jones (Southampton City Art
Gallery, Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart and elsewhere) and less well-known examples by the likes of John William Godward, Herbert Draper and Frank Dicksee. The present picture predates all of these.
The subject of Andromeda's sacrifice was popular with Victorian artists as a pretext for sexually charged nudity –the eroticism justified by the classical origins of the story.
Andromeda was painted in 1869 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1870 at a time
when the subject of the nude in art had reached a hiatus following the controversial
exhibition of Venus Disrobing for the Bath of 1867 (sold Sotheby's New York, 22
October 2009, lot 36). In 1870, the year that Poynter exhibited Andromeda, Millais'
exhibited The Knight Errant (Tate) which also depicts a bound and naked woman. Both
pictures hung in Gallery III and whilst Poynter's painting avoided criticism, there was public condemnation of Millais large canvas. A year later Poynter's brother-in-law Edward Burne-Jones' reputation was almost ruined by the sensational exhibition of a male nude at the Old Watercolour Society in 1871 with Phyllis and Demophoon
(Birmingham City Art Gallery). That Poynter escaped controversy for Andromeda may
be explained by its modest size as it may have been felt that nudity of this sort was
acceptable for 'cabinet pictures' whilst almost life-sized naked figures flaunted nudity beyond what was considered acceptable. This type of picture was not unusual in Paris and demonstrates the influence of Poynter's time in Gleyre's atelier whilst a student.
The genesis of Andromeda can be traced back to 1868 when Poynter was
commissioned to produce designs for the tiled decoration of the grill rooms at the South Kensington Museum, when he chose a series of depictions of heroines from classical mythology. Among these was a naked Andromeda surrounded by swirling draperies and it was this design that formed the basis for the present oil painting painted two years later. Although he had been exhibiting at the Academy for less than a decade, Poynter had already established his reputation with a series of remarkable archaeological reconstructions, the most famous of which were Faithful unto Death of 1865 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), Israel in Egypt of 1867 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London) and The Catapult of 1868 (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne).
Andromeda was a departure from these detailed constructions of the ancient world,
being the first nude that he exhibited. Free from historical clutter, the composition is simple and reliant upon rhythmic forms and rich but austere colouring. It has a powerful intensity and voluptuous beauty and is among the most remarkably direct depictions of the naked female form.
It was Andromeda that led to Poynter undertaking one of his most important decorative
projects of his career, the series of five pictures for Lord Wharncliffe's billiard room at Wortley Hall. Wharncliffe saw and admired Andromeda at the Royal Academy
exhibition of 1870 but as he did not know Poynter personally, in June 1871 he
contacted his friend John Everett Millais to instigate an introduction. Wharncliffe was considering decorating his country house outside Sheffield and asked Poynter to design a series of decorative pictures to adorn the walls. The first of the panels to be completed depicted the rescue of Andromeda by Perseus, the figure of Andromeda
being a reinterpretation of the 1870 canvas with the added figure of Perseus and the
sea-beast. Perseus and Andromeda was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1872 but
was sadly destroyed during WWII. Its composition is well-known from photographs, an
oil sketch (sold in these rooms, 17 March 1971, lot 129) and a large and highly finished charcoal and chalk drawing dated 1872 (Rugby School Collection). A single-figure drawing of Andromeda (Christie's, 13 June 2001, lot 14) dates from 1872 and it is likely that it originated as a study for the figure in the later painting, elaborated to create an independent version.
Poynter is now regarded as perhaps the finest nineteenth century British painter of the nude for works like The Visit to Aesculapius of 1880 (Tate), the controversial
Diadumene of 1884 (Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter) and
arguably the most erotic Victorian painting of nudes The Cave of the Storm Nymphs of
1903 (collection of Lord Lloyd Webber). His ceaseless study of classical sculpture and of living naked models gave him an understanding of the nude, free from the coyness or salaciousness that his less talented contemporaries indulged in. Andromeda's nudity is not merely erotic; it conveys deeper symbolism of isolation, vulnerability and powerlessness. In several legends of the sacrifice of Andromeda she is said to aided her rescue by Perseus by hurling stones at the sea-monster but Poynter like virtually all the other nineteenth century painters of the myth depicted her bound and defenceless.
This conformed to Victorian notions of gender roles, making Andromeda the archetype
'damsel in distress' a classical variant of the medieval legend of Princess Sabra. It may not be a coincidence that in the same year that Poynter painted Andromeda he was at work upon designs for a mosaic at Westminster Palace depicting St. George (Sabra's saviour).
Andromeda has the quality of an Old Master painting, with its dark and foreboding rocks contrasting with the warmth of voluptuous female flesh. Her billowing blue robes echo the violence of the lashing sea spray and convey her powerless as she is unable even to keep her draperies about her. Andromeda's hair is bound, mirroring the cruel iron bonds of her wrists. Her body is twisted uncomfortably in a pose that recalls that of Michelangelo's dying slave and her face conveys pain and fear; she has closed her eyes so that she might not see the monster which lurks somewhere in the waters beneath and her lips are parted in song as though she were singing her own lament or praying to the gods for mercy.
Andromeda was owned by the Oldham industrialist Charles Edward Lees JP (1840-
1894) and his wife Sarah (1842-1935) a civil activist and politician who became the
second female Mayor in Britain. Lees had inherited a fortune from his father Eli, a
cotton manufacturer and member of one of the most influential families in Lancashire.
The symbolism of Andromeda's bonds and the links to the plight of the African
American slaves that worked on his forebear's land was probably not lost on Lees. He
was a great benefactor for those less fortunate than himself, funding not only the
Oldham City Art Gallery but also being integral to the foundation of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Another of his classical paintings was Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses of 1891 and he also owned Rossetti's The First Madness of Ophelia of 1864 (both now at Oldham City Art Gallery).