Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Fisherman and the Syren: From a Ballad by Goethe by Frederic, Lord Leighton

Here is an unusually sensuous painting of a predatory siren by Victorian classicist Lord Leighton, the painter of Flaming June.  Painted almost forty years before the latter master work this is the work of a twenty-five year old Leighton and was commissioned by Mario, Count Candia.

Leighton's painting is based on Goethe's early poem Der Fischer about a youth who is drowned by  nymph who lures him into the depths of the sea.  When it was displayed at the Royal Academy the accompanying catologue carried this translation of the final couplet from the poem:

Half drew she him,
                Half sunk he in,
And never more was seen.

The fish-tailed siren depicted here is a classic example of the seductive but deadly Victorian femme fatale whose enticing sexuality brings nothing but destruction to men.  Her tail is sinuously wound around his lower legs, her body moulded against his with her breasts pressed against his chest in a remarkably erotic way for the time.  It is a great diagonal composition with the blue-grey rocks and water forminng a neutral background, the siren's pale body contrasting with the fisherman's brown one and splashes of red and orange pulling the eye in to the centre of the picture.

The picture was well received by the critics with William Rosetti in  The Spectator detecting "a passionate abandon and irresistible clinging in the Siren which, though it may elevate some eyebrows, is the right untimourous thing for the artist to have done"  The painting is now in Bristol City Art Gallery.

Hermaphroditus and Salmacis (1892)

It is interesting to compare the Leighton with this later work by the German artist Carl Bertling (1835-1918) sometimes entitled A Sea Nymph but properly titled Hermaphroditus and Salmacis.  Bertling did a lot of decorative work; murals and frescoes partciularly in Düsseldorf and Dresden as well as many religious and genre paintings such as this one.

Hermaphroditus was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite (hence his name).  Brought up in Phrygia (Turkey,) he travelled to Caria (near present day Bodrum, or Halicarnasss as it was).  In some woods near Caria he came upon the nymph, Salmacis, who tried to seduce him when he approached her pool.  He rejected her but later returned to the pool which he believed to be empty. Salmacis had been hiding behind a tree and jumped into the pool where she grabbed the youth.  As he struggled to escape she called out to the gods that they should not be parted.  The gods agreed and blended their bodies into one creature of both sexes creating, of course, a hermaphrodite.

The mirror image composition of Bertling's painting is remarkably close to Leighton's.  The colouring of the protaganists' skin and the ovearll palette suggest that he must have seen it at some point.

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