Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Bacchic Venuses: Maenads in a Wood by Gustave Doré

Maenads in a Wood (1879)

We have looked at the work of Gustave Doré (1832-1883) before with his painting of Andromeda. Doré was better known for his engravings, of course, but later in his comparatively short life he took up sculpture.  He first started sculpting in 1871 but didn't exhibit his first work until 1877; two years before this work.

This plaster relief was inspired by his own painting of the same year The Death of Orpheus.  In the plaster relief Orpheus is absent and we just have this splendid pile of sinuous, naked Maenads.  The Maenads were female followers of Dionysus (Bacchus in Roman mythology, hence the followers were known as Bacchantes).  Traditionally, they would get into a frenzied state through wild dancing and drinking (Maenads literally means "raving ones").  They also possessed poisoned talons and it was group of Maenads who killed Orpheus for having rejected Dionysus in favour of Apollo.

Bacchantes (the Roman term was more popular) were popular subjects with nineteenth century artists, no doubt because of the opportunity to depict wild, abandoned women or those posed in attitudes of post-frenzy sprawl.  The fact that Maenads were also believed to have engendered uncontrollable sexual frenzy amongst those they came into contact with also played well to the Victorian idea of sexual woman as predatory beast.

Triple P took this picture of the piece in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it is exhibited, last summer.

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