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?

Further Information:



Creating the Perfect Woman (Part 1) – Pygmalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

The story of Pygmalion is a great place to start when exploring the topic of creating a perfect woman in art. The most well known of the classical sources of the myth can be found in Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses. The basic story is that a talented sculptor, Pygmalion, creates a statue that he subsequently falls in love with. The goddess Venus brings the statue to life and they live happily ever after. Only, a story is never that simple with Ovid!

Gérôme, J-L.  (1890).  Pygmalion and Galatea [oil on canvas], London, The Bridgemen Art Library.  (via Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository).

Pygmalion is idealistic, he has shunned the company of the local women because he is ‘sick of the vices of the female sex’ (Raeburn, 2004). Eventually, he succeeds in creating a statue of his ideal woman. Ovid repeatedly describes this ivory statue as ‘virginal’ and ‘white as snow’ (‘eburnea virgo‘ and ‘niveum‘), the implication here being that it is untouched by male hands (other than his own of course) and unblemished by sexual relations. Ovid is emphasising the statue’s purity and innocence.

Ovid makes it clear that Pygmalion is in love with the image of a woman, his desire is ‘for a semblance of body’ (simulati corporis). Since he is too idealistic he cannot love a flawed real woman, instead can only love his own imagined mimic of a woman. Pygmalion’s predicament is that the ivory statue is not real, he cannot fulfil his desires. There is irony here as his frenzied passion makes him paw at the stone and press his lips against the statue as he imagines what flesh would feel like.

His madness increases as he talks to the statue, dresses it and buys it expensive gifts. Ovid really makes the most of this passage as he exaggerates Pygmalion’s strange behaviour and lists details of the sculptor’s actions. This scene is heaped with parody and the reader may be amused by Pygmalion’s obsession. Should we laugh at him or pity him? There is a sense that he brought this upon himself, that he is being punished for rejecting local women in favour of his own fantasy.

Ultimately, Pygmalion prays at the alter of the goddess Venus. He really wants his statue to be brought to life but even he knows this is a fantasy, so he asks to wed a woman ‘resembling’ his ‘ivory maiden’ (‘similis mea eburnae‘). This is an ironic inversion of his predicament: he was in love with a statue in the image of a woman and he now wishes for a woman in the image of his statue.

Venus knows what he really means and in an uncharacteristic show of magnanimity she grants his wish. Pygmalion rushes home and this time when he touches and kisses the statue he feels it soften under his fingers. What once was hard stone could now be moulded like soft wax into many shapes. Pygmalion is still an artist here, forming and reforming the flesh. Perhaps the implication is that he is fickle?

It is important to note that the statue never speaks. Nor does she ever give consent. The only reaction she has is that she blushes under her creator’s touch. The word used here is ‘erubuit‘ which could mean she blushed ‘with shame’. Previously, Pygmalion was concerned about bruising the white stone of her arms with his rough touch, his touch now makes her imperfect. The irony is that by fulfilling his desires he is also soiling his immaculate woman. His passion has ruined his fantasy and the woman is no longer untouched. The concept of a ‘perfect woman’ remains a fantasy.

Watts, G.F.  (circa. 1868)  The Wife of Pygmalion [oil on canvas], Oxfordshire, The Faringdon Collection Trust.  (via Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository).

The Wider Context

Metamorphoses is a long narrative poem which leaps from story to story. This sometimes feels random, however, stories are often positioned close to each other to allow the audience to make links and comparisons.

The preceding story before we encounter Pygmalion is one that also involves statues and female sexuality. In this story we are told how the women of the neighbouring island of Amanthus, the Propoetides, offended the goddess Venus and were punished by becoming ‘the first to offer their bodies and beauties for sale’. Through prostitution they ‘lost all shame and the blood no longer ran to their cheeks’ until they ultimately became so hardened that they turned to stone.

The story of Pygmalion’s statue then is an inversion of the story of the Propoetides. By selling their bodies they lost their shame and with that the ability to blush. Pygmalion’s statue experiences shame because of the artist’s actions and blushes for the first time. We cannot read the story of Pygmalion as a straightforward love story when it is purposefully tinged with inferences of prostitution and shame. Ovid has emphasised the purity and virginal qualities of the ivory statue, and when she becomes a real woman, created for Pygmalion’s pleasure, it is her downfall. It is no coincidence Ovid tells us that ‘snow white’ young female heifers are to be sacrificed at Venus’ festival, using the same word ‘nivea‘ to describe both these young victims and the virginal statue.

Ovid was composing his poetry during the rule of Augustus. During this time a number of controversial ‘marriage laws’ were instated, designed to penalise celibacy and heavily punish adultery. The laws were unfairly weighted against women as they were designed to promote legitimate offspring, and men were permitted to go so far as to kill their own wives and daughters if they were caught in the act of adultery. Thus the sexual propriety of women was under close scrutiny at the time and virginity was a cherished commodity. A girl could quite literally be ‘ruined’ once a man had had his way with her. It is possible to argue that sex between the sculptor and his perfect woman is ok because there were no other partners involved… but does Pygmalion ever marry her?

It is possible to argue that Ovid is either mocking Augustus’ marriage laws or that he is supporting them. Certainly, Pygmalion shows signs of what must have been a common concern among men at the time, in that he distrusted the sexual morals of women. Ovid appears to mock this attitude as the sculptor rejects all real women and suggests that his ideals are too high and the idea of a completely virginal woman is a fantasy. The poet had cultivated his own reputation as being a hopeless romantic and a successful seducer of women, writing a guide to love, his Ars Amatoria. Perhaps the poet knew the sexual nature of women well enough that he believed the idea of an entirely sexually innocent woman was an entirely male fiction. With his mockery of Pygmalion’s obsession and the ultimate corruption of the virginal woman, it is possible to read Metamorphoses as a satirisation of Augustan conservative attitude.

However, you could also read the poem as supporting Augustan laws. Ovid’s mocking portrayal of Pygmalion as a man who rejects women and is driven mad by his passion for an unachievable ideal certainly mocks those who would choose celibacy over marriage. With heavy financial deterrents punishing celibacy in place, this passage could be read as a parody of those individuals who do not follow the expected social norms.

Ovid is a tricky character and it is hard to pin down any firm opinions the poet may have held. He seemed to enjoy upsetting conventions and when you think you understand a certain perspective in Metamorphoses, the story twists and contradicts itself. We do know that he eventually found himself on Augustus’ bad side and was banished to the Black Sea.

A key theme of Metamorphoses is the silencing of characters, often through the metamorphosis itself, and often in combination with the theme of power. Ovid seems to be commenting on those who have the power to speak and be heard, and those who have their voices suppressed. It is important to note that the statue-woman never speaks in this poem. Nor does she have a name. In fact her story is told by two male voices. Ovid as the poet narrator is the first voice. The second is the character Orpheus, who is telling a series of stories ‘of boys whom the gods have loved and of girls who have been inspired to a frenzy of lawless passion and paid the price for their lustful desires’. So that is two male voices telling stories of women’s sexuality, and if you count David Raeburn as the translator, then the total is three. Whether purposefully or inadvertently, Ovid reveals a world where women often do not have a voice and where their sexuality is constantly monitored and judged by men.


As much as we might like to think of the tale of Pygmalion as a beautiful love story, this would be the result of a light reading of the passage out of context. A detailed analysis of the passage reveals how Ovid subtly injects sinister undertones to the story. The girl never speaks and her situation is tinged with its association with prostitution. The loss of her virginity is compared to the murder of young female heifer. The legacy of this union is also plagued with incest and misfortune, indicating that it was unnatural or cursed in some way (the following stories of Myrrah, Venus and Adonis, and Atalanta and Hippomenes can be discussed separately later). I like to think that Ovid has a realist’s approach to relationships and that he enjoys mocking those who are too idealistic or that try to impose their sexual morals upon others.

Ferrari, E. (1887) Statuia lui Ovidiu din Constanța, [online], Wikimedia Commons [uploaded by Romeo Tabus].

Key Features:

  • Primary Source (in Latin and in translation)

  • Poetry

  • Written in Rome circa 2-8 CE during the Principate of Augustus.

  • Close reading

Further Information:

  • The Latin text of Metamorphoses can be found at The Latin Library online at:

  • The excellent English translation I used was by David Raeburn for Penguin Classics (Raeburn, D. trans. [2004] Metamorphoses, London, The Penguin Group. ISBN-13: 978-0-140-4489-7)

  • Translations assisted by the Morwood, D. ed., (2005), Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary, New York, Oxford University Press.

  • The images used in this post were sourced from Wikimedia Commons [online]:

  • For more courses on myth in the Greek and Roman worlds (A330), information on Ovid and the Augustan period (A330 and A276), and for courses in Classical Latin (A276) see The Open University: