Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Watery Venuses: Sirens and Nymphs by Herbert Draper Part 1

The Sea Maiden (1894)

Herbert James Draper (1864-1920) combined the classicism of Lord Leighton with the aestheticism of Burne-Jones and a dash of JW Waterhouse thrown in. Until recently he had been largely forgotten, despite being hugely popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. In a way, his wonderful draftsmanship and his luminous painting technique counted against him at a time when these skills were becoming unfashionable in the early part of the century.

Figure study

He was born in London, the son of a Covent Garden grocer, and attended the Bruce School in Tottenham where he showed a talent for science and, indeed, his father hoped he would become a doctor. However, it was art that called him and he attended the St. John's Wood Art School and the Royal Academy Schools. In 1889 he won the Royal Academy Travelling Scholarship and, as a result, was able to study at the Academie Julian in Paris and then in Rome. He also travelled to Spain, Holland and Belgium and even contemplated living in Europe but was disuaded from doing so by Lord Leighton who had, himself, led a peripatetic life and spent much time in Europe.

He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887 and continued do so until his death although, inexplicably, he never became a RA, or even an associate, despite being proposed several times. At the point in his life when he could have expected to be inducted into the Royal Academy the president was Edward Poynter, another post-classical artist. Some have suggested that Poynter resented Draper whose style was similar. In fact, a more likely explanation is that compared to the cool classicism of Poynter and his contemporaries Draper's women were seething with aggressive eroticism. Were his pictures just deemed to sexy for the RA?

Draper was very keen on Greek mythlogical subjects and given his facility in painting both naked women and water it isn't surprising that many of his works feature both in combination. Here we will look at some of his watery (and other) Venuses.

Oil study for The Sea Maiden (1894)

The Sea Maiden (1894) was his first really successful painting and was an illustration of a passage from Swinburne's tragedy Chastelard (1865) (which is actually about Mary Queen of Scots) about some sailors who net a sea-girl.

Study for The Sea Maiden (1894)

"Have you read never in French books the song
Called the Duke's Song, some boy made ages back,
A song of drag-nets hauled across thwart seas
And plucked up with rent sides, and caught therein
A strange-haired woman with sad singing lips,
Cold in the cheek like any stray of sea,
And sweet to touch? so that men seeing her face,
And how she sighed out little Ahs of pain
And soft cries sobbing sideways from her mouth,
Fell in hot love, and having lain with her
Died soon? one time I could have told it through:
Now I have kissed the sea-witch on her eyes
And my lips ache with it; but I shall sleep
Full soon, and a good space of sleep."

Study for The Sea Maiden (1894)

His study demonstartes one of the key differences between his art and, say, Lord Leighton and Poynter; the aggressive animation of his figures. No cool, classical repose for Draper but passionate, sinuous movement: these are live bodies not statues.

Draper wrote of his preparation for the painting: "I took the usual pains in gathering my studies, spending hours in a boat with a fishing net floating in the water over a couple of spars. I made my studies at sea off Devon and the Scillies (the latter the more useful) and I spent some time on a Devon trawler to see the nets hauled with the fish - a roughish sort of experience, as they go for 48 hours at a stretch. My barbaric or archaic boat I was, of course, unable to get, so I modelled it in wax and coloured it, and then studied it out of doors."

Oh, and if you like it and have about a million pounds to spare you can buy it on June 16th 2010 as its up for sale at Christies.

The Foam Sprite (1895)

Draper always had his detractors, even at the height of his fame, and it has been suggested that one of the reasons for his failure to be accepted into the RA was the variable taste he displayed over the choice and execution of some of his paintings. This is perfectly illustrated by The Foam Sprite (1895), a painting which one critic referred to recently as "a tacky pin-up". An ecstatic looking nymph sits astride a dolphin, seemingly with wet strands of seaweed erupting from her groin. Frankly, the effect is not dissimilar to the picture of Ana Beatriz Barros with a boa constrictor between her legs in our previous post. Nevertheless, someone liked it, as in 1906 it was exhibited, with a large number of other representative examples of British art, in New Zealand where it was bought for 250 guineas by the Adelaide Art Society.

Bather (1896)

Next we have a fairly traditional "bather" which, outside of mythological subjects, was still the only way a nude would have been acceptable to the much of the general public. He has yet to really settle on his style for watery nymphs and, in fact, rather like many of his portraits, the picture almost looks like it could have been painted in the eighteenth century. It certainly does not show any of the influences of the French impressionists which many of his later paintings do.

Caypso's Isle (1897)

The first of what could be called his "siren" paintings illustrated the passage from Homer's Odyssey where Odysseus is held captive by the alluring sea goddess Calypso on her island, Ogygia. Odysseus had left Sicily and drifted southwards for nine days before being shipwrecked on the island. Simple geography has meant that Calypso's island Ogygia has been identified as Gozo, the first landfall south of Sicily (and this is, unsurprisingly, a view heavily promoted by the Maltese tourist board as Triple P found on some of his trips to Malta a few years ago). Calypso kept Odysseus hostage for seven years but, as he wished to return to his wife, Penelope, Athena begged Zeus to release him. He can't have been too miserable with Calypso, however, as she bore him two children. In Draper's painting Calypso sits by the sea in a rocky bay which certainly has a Maltese look to it.

Study for Calpyso's Isle (1897)

In one of his original studies for the painting the figure of Calypso is shown admiring herself in her mirror rather than just holding it. The finished painting was exhibited, to critical acclaim, at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900 where it won a gold medal although one critic thought that Calypso's figure was ".. not so plump as it ought to be."

The Lament for Icarus (1898)

Probably his most famous painting is the Lament for Icarus (1898) which also gained a gold medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 and was bought for what became the Tate Gallery, where it still resides, by the Chantrey Bequest.

Studies for The Lament for Icarus

Draper takes the fall of Icarus myth and adds his own water nymphs overcome by grief at the loss of such a perfect specimen of humanity.

Study for The Lament of Icarus

The models for the three nymphs were Ethel Warwick, Ethel Gurden and, one of his his favourite models, Florence Bird. All were Royal Academy professionals, as was the male model who would, of course, have been drawn in a seperate sitting from the women. It's been said that the painting was done as a memorial to either Lord Leighton or, more likely, his father who had died in 1898.

A Waterbaby (1900)

Our next painting certainly has a family connection as it celebrates the birth of Draper's only child, Yvonne Ida, who was born on 26th May 1899. The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1900.

The Gates of Dawn (1900)

The Gates of Dawn (1900) is not a watery painting but we think that it is Draper's masterpiece and so could not leave it out. The sheer physical presence of the figure dominates the painting. The picture, again, features the model Florence Bird resplendent with the soft, luminous lights of the dawn sky behind her and draped in sumptuous purples and pinks. Some critics have ventured that the picture is more a paean to Florence Bird herself but if you look at the study you can see that Draper has changed her face and figure quite a lot for the finished painting.

Study of Florence Bird for the Gates of Dawn

Draper confirmed that the figure was meant to be Aurora or Eos and the picture reflects the passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses "far in the crimsoning east wakeful Dawn threw wide the shining doors of her rosefilled chambers".

Prospero summoning nymphs and deities (1903)

Florence Bird's body features prominently again in Draper's huge painting for the ceiling of (appropriately) the Draper's Hall in London. Based on Act IV, scene 1 of The Tempest Florence's elegant body can be seen in the centre foreground holding flowers and representing Iris.

Study for "Iris" from Prospero

Florence also modelled for the other female figures in the painting and these studies demonstrate Draper's extraordinary draftsmanship of the figure.

Study for Prospero

Draper painting Prospero in his studio at St Ives

The picture itself was painted in St Ives in Cornwall where Draper, attracted by the light, was able to find a large enough studio to accommodate the 20'x30' canvas.

Study of Florence Bird for Prospero

Sea Melodies (1904)

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1904, Sea Melodies presents two of Draper's most sensuous sea nymphs so far.

The Pearls of Aphrodite (1907)

It is a sensuousness seen again in his picture of Aphrodite, although her surrounding nymphs look more innocent than the ecstatically transported ones of Sea Melodies.

The Water Nixie (1908)

This is another of Draper's sexy "pin-ups". A nixie is the German version of a siren; a water dwelling spirit who is prone to luring men to their deaths. Although the nixie is depicted on her own early sketches show her seducing a man or a satyr. In the final painting Draper has chosen, instead, to depict the nixie focussing her attentions on the viewer.

Over the next ten years Draper would return to the theme of alluring but destructive woman from the sea and we will examine these in part two.

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