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Updated: May 15, 2013 23:33 IST

Neo-classical artists and their lifelike paintings

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'Orpheus and Eurydice' painting by G.F. Watts
'Orpheus and Eurydice' painting by G.F. Watts

Hyderabad’s Salar Jung Museum has collection of paintings from 19th century England depicting Greek classical stories

In the second half of 19th century there emerged in England a group of painters led by Sir Frederick Leighton who painted Greek classical stories containing heroic figures filled with pure feelings. Other members of this neo-classical group were G.F. Watts, Sir Edward J. Poynter, Alma Todema, Herbert Schmalz.

However, two of this section of neo-classical artists – Watts and Schmaltz – went beyond noble figures. Watts intended his pictures “to suggest great thoughts that will appeal to the imagination and the heart and kindle all that is best and noblest in humanity”. Schmalz filled his pictures with profound thoughts. Two of their pictures – one each of Watts and Schmalz – show how they achieved their mission in art.

G.F. Watts: “Orpheus and Eurydice”. The well-known love story of Orpheus and Eurydice needs no long narration. Orpheus, son of Apollo by muse Calliope, marries Eurydice, the princess of Thrace. A neighbouring prince Aristateus, enraged at her beauty, tries to ravish her. Eurydice, fleeing from him, steps on a snake and dies of its bite. Orpheus, unable to bear the separation, goes to the nether world and makes use of his musical abilities in praise of the presiding deities, Pluto and Prosperine.

The divine couple, touched by compassion, returns his wife to life on condition that until they reach the earth – the land of light – he should not look back upon her. Halfway through, his curiosity prevailing, Orpheus looks back and has the mortification to see his wife dropping down dead.

The painting shows the last stage in the life of Eurydice. A victim to the uncontrollable curiosity of her husband she dies stricken with divine wrath. Thus the picture’s beginning is in line with the artist’s preaching: divine dispensations are not to be tinkered with. The soft, mild treatment of the dying Eurydice is in contrast with the spirited execution of Orpheus whose love for his beloved is strong.

A detached flower stalk, a broken string of the musical instrument, an owl painted in outlines proclaim the tragedy that has taken place. Colours – brown, pale white, dark green, blue – accentuate the unhappy content of the canvas. This painting was exhibited in New Gallery, London, in 1897.

Self-taught painter

George Frederick Watts, who died in 1904, lived for 87 years. Born in London, Watts displayed his flair for painting even as a boy: By 16 years he was earning his livelihood by selling his drawings. Largely self-taught, he exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy when he was only 20 years.

At the age of 25, he won the first prize for competition for frescoes (paintings on plaster) for the new houses of English Parliament. He did portraits: most of them are in the London Portrait gallery.

He gained fame for allegorical pictures. The famous ones are “Time, Death, and Judgment”, “Hope”. He did some sculptures also. A Royal Academician, he rejected the offer of baronetcy twice (1884 and 1894).

Herbert Schmalz: “Awakening of Galatea”. The picture, exhibited in 1907, depicts a definite stage in the life of Pygmalion, a sculptor king of Cyprus. A bachelor, Pygmalion sculpted in stone ‘Galatea’, a woman more perfect than anyone ever born. His creation was so faultless he fell in love with it. He implored Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to make the sculptured beauty into a living and breathing woman. The goddess sanctioned his wish.

The picture records the moment when the sculptor’s prayers are being answered. The upper limbs, rosy-hued, are turning alive. The kneeling sculptor is unaware that life force is at work on top. Besides these main figures i.e. the statue and the sculptor, on the left is the clay model of the figure and on the right stands the “statue of the angel of life”.

The picture embodies, according to an appraiser of the piece, “three stages of life: dead, inanimate and living”.

Inanimate is the still, cold stone; dead are the lower limbs; living are the upper limbs. From death to life is the theme of the picture. Restrained is the colour scheme. Small and distinct are the brush strokes. Dramatic is the theme. Hidden is the ennobling meaning.

Born to a mixed parentage in 1856 (father, a German; mother, Scottish) Herbert Schmalz had his art education at New Castle Art School and Royal Academy schools. He finished his art training with tours in Continent, Egypt, Palestine, Syria. Back in England he started rendering holy subjects which won praise. Forming one of the four pictures produced from 1895 Schmalz’s Museum piece is the ‘Old golden picture’ as per the estimate of his biographer, Trevor Blackmore.

Dep. Keeper (Retd),

Salar Jung Museum

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