Thursday, October 6, 2016

Nymphs and Satyrs by Théodore Géricault

A few months ago we looked at some erotic art by the French painter Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) whose erotic output only surfaced long after his death.  Today, we will look at some of his drawings and sculptures of nymphs and satyrs which were mostly produced in around 1817.

In classical Greek legend satyrs were the companions of the god Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, amongst other things.  Although sometimes depicted with horses legs they were considered half man and half goat, with long ears and horns and usually a permanent erection.

In later Roman times the creature was transformed into the faun with the familiar goat legs. Satyrs were generally considered more aggressive than fauns and spent much of their time pursuing nymphs.

Géricault has certainly focussed on the aggressive character of satyrs, rather than the more indolent fauns, in his works.  There is none of the gentle compliance seen in other artists works in his pieces.  There is no doubt in all of his examples that the nymph has been grabbed against her will and her resulting struggles provide the animation for the artworks.

Although most of his nymphs are naked, a few appear in classical clothing so as to add an extra element of movement through the depiction of the drapery.  An outflung arm from the nymph is also used quite a bit, perhaps depicting the point of desperate surrender rather than a more aggressive resistance.

Apart from the black chalk, brown wash and white gouache painting at the top of the post, in all cases the nymph is looking away from the satyr, rejecting him completely.

Géricault also experimented with sculpture and this terracotta piece has the satyr attempting to take the nymph from behind,  In this example only the long ears and hooves indicate a satyr as the male figure has normal legs in the traditional Ancient Greek manner.  This is very different from all his other nymph and satyr pieces, so perhaps it was a last minute attempt to make the sculpture acceptable by adding classical elements to what otherwise looks like a human attempted rape.

This sculpture is the only surviving example of the artist's work in carving stone; something that no other painter of the time would even attempt, due to the difficulty of working the material. When fellow painter Delacroix saw it he said "one should need to be a madman to make it",  The nymph, looking away from her aggressor once more, has her hand pressing on the satyr's head but any resistance is futile as the satyr's hand is between his legs to, presumably, grasp his erection and thrust into the nymph.  It is a bold, modern-looking work, looking forward to Rodin and dates to about 1818.

In the near future we will look at Géricault's handling of another mythological subject and there will be more nymphs and satyrs from other artists too.


  1. This brings back a fun memory of my high school teaching days! I had my 9th grade class do presentations on mythological creatures, and one of my more hyper students didn't know what to pick. One of the creatures left on the list was the Satyr. So he went home and did some research about it, and when he came into class the next day, he had his poster presentation all ready, but he loudly announced to me with a small amount of shock: "Miss! Satyrs is all about SEX!" As if I didn't know! But he'd finished his poster, and I have to say, the fact that satyrs were all about sex probably inspired him to do more research than he might have otherwise ;) Still tickles me to this day!

    1. That's hilarious! How old is a 9th grader? - we have a differemt year system in the UK

    2. A typical 9th grader in the states is about 14 - 15 years old ;)

    3. Ah want in the UK is called year 10 and in my day was the fourth year (the age of archery girl A from my recent Chronicles)