Creating the Perfect Woman (Part 2) – Painting Pygmalion: Creating the Perfect Artist

Burne-Jones, E.  (1875-1878) The Godhead Fires, Pygmalion (III of IV) [second series], [oil on canvas], Birmingham, Birmingham City Museums & Art Gallery (via Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository).

When Ovid wrote the story of Pygmalion his focus was not the perfect statue the sculptor created, but the skill and obsession of the artist himself. The myth is the artists’ myth because no matter the medium they all share the desire to create their own personal masterpiece. They share Pygmalion’s desire to create something beyond the mundane, to create something so perfect that it is almost divine.


I mean by a picture a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be—in a light better than any light that ever shone—in a land no one can define or remember, only desire—and the forms divinely beautiful—and then I wake up

(Edward Burne-Jones in Chisholm, Hugh, ed., 1911)


These words, written by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, explain his desire to create something beyond the earthly human experience, to paint a masterpiece that is heavenly and spiritually beautiful. This desire was shared by Louis Gauffier, the creator of one of my favourite paintings at Manchester Art Gallery, Pygmalion and Galatea.


Gauffier, Louis, 1761-1801; Pygmalion and Galatea
Gauffier, L. (1797), Pygmalion and Galatea, [oil on canvas], Manchester, Manchester Art Gallery (via Art UK).

Gauffier presents an idealised version of the Pygmalion myth, omitting the more distressing aspects of Ovid’s poem. Pygmalion has abandoned all his other work due to his obsession with the statue: a bust has been knocked over on the floor; another sculpture has been forgotten in the shadows; and Galatea (who now has a name) stands illuminated on a raised pedestal. The sculptor has achieved the greatest aim of an artist, he has created a masterpiece of divine beauty. Galatea is almost identical to the goddess Venus who is hovering over her: the two women’s faces are identical; they have the same body proportions and ivory skin tone; and they even have the same hairstylist! Gauffier has attempted to paint the ‘perfect’ woman according to 18th century ideals. And by painting female figures in the image of the goddess Venus, he is promoting himself as the perfect artist.


as the figure of a man is the most perfect work of God upon Earth, it is also certain that he who imitates God in painting human figures, is by far more excellent than all the others.’

(Félibien, A. 1667, in Korda, A. 2016)


These words by André Félibien, art chronicler and historian to Louis VIX of France, became the blueprint for artists in the 18th century. History Painting was considered to be the most noble genre and Gauffier was following the conventions of his time. In painting a woman in the image of a goddess, Gauffier compares his own artistic abilities with the divine. Thus, Gauffier elevates his own reputation as an artist as he ‘imitates God in painting human figures’. It is interesting to note that Venus holds a butterfly above Galatea’s head as a symbol of her metamorphosis from stone to flesh. Perhaps this implies that the goddess rewards the mastery of the artist, and that Gauffier hopes his own efforts will be recognised by those who held the power in the 18th century: the church; the wealthy nobility; and the god-appointed king.


Michelangelo, (c. 1508–1512), The Creation of Adam [fresco], Rome, Sistine Chapel (via Wikimedia Commons).

Venus’ languid pose and swirling fabric are reminiscent of both the figures of God and Adam from Michelangelo’s iconic fresco The Creation of Adam, evoking the metaphor between God’s creation of a mortal, and Venus’ creation of Galatea. However, Venus does not point at her creation but at the Cupid next to her, signifying that she blesses the union with love. The theme of creation runs through this image: Pygmalion creates Galatea; Gauffier creates the image; and the goddess creates life. Venus is in the role of generous benefactor here which would have flattered any potential patrons. Yet Gauffier wisely omits any suggestion of the doomed legacy this union creates.

In what is possibly one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history, Gauffier was one of many creators who contributed to what we now call The Cult of the Artist. This reached a peak during the Romantic period as poets, sculptors, musicians and painters strove towards an elevated status where they cultivated an idea that artists were beyond the average human ability: they were more spiritual; closer to god; and they possessed an almost supernatural ability to feel things that were beyond the emotional comprehension of most people. This manifested itself through characteristics such as melancholy, social isolation, volatile emotions and obsessive behaviour. Pygmalion certainly fits the mould!

Pygmalion is the artist’s hero. Gauffier’s painting says as much about the role of artists themselves as it does about the myth of Pygmalion and his statue. Ovid the poet, Pygmalion the sculptor, and Gauffier the painter all share the same passion for their art as they strive towards perfection. This passion is mirrored by Pygmalion’s painful and longing obsession for Galatea. The artist in this myth is rewarded for his perfectionism as the goddess brings his statue to life. Likewise, 18th and early 19th century artists would have hoped to have their skill recognised and rewarded by powerful patrons. Other artists in the Metamorphoses, such as Aráchne and Órpheus, are not so fortunate.


Burne-Jones, E.  (1868-1870), The Heart Desires, Pygmalion (I of IV) [first series], [oil on canvas], Paris, Joseph Setton Collection (private), (via Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository).

Now that we understand how the Pygmalion myth could be used to tell us more about the creation of the perfect artist rather than the creation of the perfect woman, we will turn our attention to the British artist, Edward Burne-Jones.

Burne-Jones was a Victorian artist who rejected the classical style of History Painting as too formulaic, preferring instead the Pre-Raphaelite Medieval influences which were thought to be more spiritual and heart-felt. His early artworks tended to have women clothed in draped fabric. So why the sudden interest in a Greek myth?

Burne-Jones was so engaged with the myth of Pygmalion that he painted the story in a series of images twice! In The Heart Desires, the first image from the original Pygmalion series, we are presented with the brooding sculptor, dressed in sombre robes, alone in his studio. But he is not alone in the painting, he is surrounded by several female figures who appear to be watching the artist intently. To the right is a group of female nudes, clinging to one another companionably. This group may represent the Propoetides from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the prostitutes from Amathus who became so stone hearted that they turned into granite statues. Mimicking their poses are a pair of local Cypriot girls, the same girls that Pygmalion has rejected after he heard about the Propoetide’s way of life. He is abstaining from the pleasures of the flesh and is pursuing his goal of perfecting his art instead. The various women in the painting seem to be gossiping about him and judging him, but they also seem curious to see what he is doing. The painting perhaps hints that he is being almost arrogant in his choice to be celibate and in rejecting the pleasures of the flesh.

The Heart Desires presents Pygmalion as the idealised Romantic artist, melancholy, idealistic and separate from the common crowd. However, the gossiping women seem to represent Ovid’s mocking tone and perhaps there is a hint of parody of the stereotypical image of the isolated artist.


Burne-Jones, E.  (1868-1870), The Hand Refrains, Pygmalion (II of IV) [first series], [oil on canvas], Paris, Joseph Setton Collection (private), (via Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository).

In the second painting of the series, The Hand Refrains, Pygmalion has achieved his goal and his perfect statue now stands before him. Whereas Gauffier’s statue stands tall and rather proudly displays her nudity, this statue is hunched, almost as though the woman is trying to conceal herself in embarrassment. Pygmalion mimics her pose and his expression has softened, and as he contemplates his work he almost appears sympathetic towards her. The statue stands apart from other statues and is alone, like himself.

By viewing art we become part of the painting. We are now the voyeur, looking in at the presented scene and judging it. Artists often cannily play with this dynamic. In The Hand Refrains, we take on the role of Pygmalion, judging the art, and as our eyes move across the statue’s body she cannot hide herself from our gaze. We may feel pleasure from looking at a successful piece of art, from admiring the recreation of an attractive female body, but however much we admire her, like Pygmalion, we cannot fulfil any sexual desires we may feel. This is the trick the artist plays on us, making us part of the story.


Burne-Jones, E.  (1868-1870), The Godhead Fires, Pygmalion (III of IV) [first series], [oil on canvas], Paris, Joseph Setton Collection (private), (via Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository).

In The Godhead Fires, Pygmalion prays at a statue of Venus in the background and the goddess has heard his pleas. She appears in the painting in a burst of life as birds and roses scatter around her, signifying fertility and life, and water pools around her feet indicating her own birth from the sea. As in Gauffier’s painting, the two women are almost identical in build and facial features. We can see how successful Pygmalion has been in his artistic quest to create something divine, a woman so perfect she resembles the goddess of beauty and desire. However, Venus here is fully dressed in robes and this draws attention to the statue’s nakedness and vulnerability even more. As the statue comes to life she leans forward to cling to the goddess’ arms in an embrace that reflects the relationship between the Cypriot women and statues in the first painting. This indicates female companionship, and as the two women embrace a knowing look seems to pass between them, the statue-woman looks pleading, almost desperate, and Venus’ expression is dour and sympathetic. Perhaps this evokes a young Roman woman’s marriage day, where she knows that she will lose her virginity that night. The statue’s legs are still made of stone and are locked in place, perhaps indicating she cannot escape her fate. This captures the subtleties of Ovid’s poem, the statue-woman’s inability to speak or resist her suitor.


Burne-Jones, E.  (1868-1870), The Soul Attains, Pygmalion (IV of IV) [first series], [oil on canvas], Paris, Joseph Setton Collection (private),  (via Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository).

The final painting of the series is The Soul Attains. Here, Pygmalion has achieved all he has ever wished for: he created his perfect sculpture in the image of a goddess, his idealised woman has been transformed from stone to flesh and he can now fulfil his passion. Although he has fallen at her feet in a similar pose to that in The Godhead Fires where he is supplicating himself before the statue of the goddess, the statue-woman actually has the inferior status here. She is naked in comparison to Pygmalion who is fully clothed and this accentuates her vulnerability.

The woman who will become known as Galatea does not look happy. She stares bankly past her lover, her expression neutral and resigned. Where her pose looked more human and desperate in the scene with Venus, it has now regressed to a statue-like rigidity, similar to that in The Heart Desires. It appears that Pygmalion’s passion is not returned. She is still naked, still vulnerable to our gaze, and forever trapped as a work of art.


maria zambaco
Burne-Jones, E.  (1870)  Pygmalion and the Image – Study of Maria Zambaco for the Head of Venus in ‘The Godhead Fires’, Birmingham, BM&AG [online]

However, there is more depth to Burne-Jones’ paintings than that. In 1866, two years before Burne-Jones started work on the first Pygmalion series, he was commissioned by Mrs Cassavetti to paint a portrait of her daughter, Maria Zambaco. Maria Zambaco was of Greek descent and, although they were both already married, the artist fell deeply in love with her. Zambaco continued to pose as Burne-Jones’ model for a number of years. This may explain the sudden interest in Greek myth!

The themes of love and creation are strong here. Burne-Jones made many sketches of Maria and painted her portrait over and over again. We can imagine his intense desire to recreate every feature perfectly while imbuing each image with the passion he felt towards her. Burne-Jones’ sketches reveal that he intended Maria for the roles of both Venus and Galatea. We also know that Maria posed as both Phyllis and her lover Demophoon in another painting. Although the artist’s wife Georgiana suggests another model posed for Pygmalion, it is possible that Burne-Jones may have used Maria for this figure too.

maria galatea
Burne-Jones, E.  (1870)  Pygmalion and the Image – Study of Maria Zambaco for the Head of Galatea in ‘The Godhead Fires’, Birmingham, BM&AG [online]

Burne-Jones is not creating an imagined perfect woman in the image of a goddess, he is doing the opposite. He has found his perfect woman in Maria and he creates the goddess of love and desire in her image. It follows that Pygmalion’s statue must also be made in the likeness of his goddess, Maria. In the story, Pygmalion creates his perfect woman once, but Burne-Jones obsessively creates and recreates the image of Maria in sketch after sketch, painting after painting. All the faces in the Pygmalion series could be Maria. As such the whole series becomes a metaphor for creation and obsessive desire.

The character of Pygmalion can be read as an egocentric artist who is not in love with a real woman, but rather he is in love with his own creation, in love with the masterpiece that proves he is an accomplished artist. Gauffier’s intentions in creating his version of Pygmalion and Galatea can also be read as a self-promoting piece of work. Burne-Jones has a different intention. In The Soul Attains Pygmalion and Galatea share the same features, which does indicate the sculptor is in love with his own talent, however, if both models are Maria then this takes on a quite different meaning. Maria was a celebrated sculptor herself and if she plays the role of Pygmalion then the image becomes a reflection of her own hopeless desire for Burne-Jones.

As such, the series of paintings can be read not only as a representation of Burne-Jones’ desire for Maria, but also as a story of Maria’s longing desire too. Like Galatea, Maria may have also felt trapped, as the stone may have represented public judgement and her ties to her estranged husband. The lovers also encountered a very public scandal and this gives more meaning to those gossiping, judgemental women in The Heart Desires. In The Godhead Fires, the way Galatea appears to be desperately clinging to the goddess of desire may be a metaphor for Maria’s own burning need for Burne-Jones’ love. In 1869, unable to fully possess Burne-Jones and under the stress of the scandal over their affair, Maria attempted to drown herself by taking Laudanum and throwing herself into a canal. What better story could represent the hopeless desire of a sculptor than the story of Pygmalion?

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