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Sotheby's to Sell One of the Finest Victorian Nude Paintings Ever Produced
Andromeda by Sir Edward John Poynter, Estimate: £300,000‐500,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Sotheby's London Sale of Victorian and Edwardian Art on Tuesday, 17 May 2011, will present one of the finest Victorian nude paintings ever produced. Estimated at £300,000-500,000, Andromeda by Sir Edward John Poynter encapsulates major themes of the period: mythology, beauty, veiled eroticism, and the damsel in distress.

Andromeda’s sacrifice to a sea‐monster was a popular subject among artists in nineteenth century Britain. The classical origins of the story were used as a pretext for sexually charged nudity, making the erotic overtones acceptable. The nude in art was a controversial subject at the time Poynter painted the present work in 1869. He exhibited Andromeda at the Royal Academy the following year, alongside Millais’ The Knight Errant, in Gallery III. Both pictures depict a bound and naked woman, but Millais’ painting was publicly condemned, unlike Poynter’s. An explanation may lie in the fact The Knight Errant is a large canvas, and its life‐sized naked figure flaunted nudity beyond what was considered acceptable. Andromeda is a small work in comparison, 20 by 14in., and its modest size allowed its nude subject to be morally palatable.

The origins of Andromeda can be found in Poynter’s commission to produce designs for the tiled decorations of the grill rooms at South Kensington Museum in 1868. He chose a series of depictions of heroines from classical mythology and a design depicting a naked Andromeda surrounded by swirling draperies formed the basis for the present oil painting. Andromeda was the first nude Poynter exhibited. In paring down the compositional elements that make up the picture, the artist has produced a powerful and intense representation of voluptuous beauty. It is remarkably direct and shares qualities with the finest Old Master paintings. The dark and foreboding rocks contrast with the figure’s warm skin tone. Her billowing blue robe echoes the violent lashings of the storm‐tossed sea, and her hair is bound, as are her wrists. The pose is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s dying slave, as Andromeda’s body twists uncomfortably.

Poynter is now regarded as one of the leading nineteenth century British painters of the nude. He ceaselessly studied classical sculpture and worked from living models, in an effort to gain understanding of the nude. Andromeda’s nudity is not merely erotic; notions of isolation, vulnerability and powerlessness are all conveyed by the picture’s deeper symbolic meaning. The work led to Poynter undertaking one of his most important decorative projects: the series of five pictures for Lord Wharncliffe’s billiard room at Wortley Hall, outside Sheffield. The first of the panels to be completed depicted the rescue of Andromeda by Perseus, the figure of the heroine a reinterpretation of the 1870 canvas, with the addition of Perseus and the sea‐beast. Perseus and Andromeda ‐ exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1872 ‐ was sadly destroyed during World War II, with archive photographs the only surviving record. The fate of this larger composition lends the present work a poignant importance for scholars and collectors alike.

The theme of beauty continues in a further exemplary work in the sale. In The Golden Days by John Melhuish Strudwick shows three female figures in a medieval chamber at the bottom of a staircase. The title is taken from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and there are numerous allusions to Guinevere and Lancelot in the composition’s details. The painting contains one of the central themes of the English Aesthetic Movement, the sense of sound evoked by the musical subject. Strudwick’s meticulous style was technically exacting, and he painted slowly as a result. The present work is therefore one of a small but precious corps of pictures that makes up his oeuvre. It was exhibited in 1907 at the New Gallery and exemplifies one the essential qualities of his art: a preoccupation with an imagined golden age. The anti‐Utilitarian counter‐culture in the late Victorian world – the subject of an exhibition entitled The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860‐1900 currently on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London – is exemplified by In The Golden Days, which is estimated at £200,000‐300,000.

*Estimates do not include buyer’s premium

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