Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Gates of Dawn by Herbert James Draper

Sometime I just feel unarmed... defenseless... exposed!

Herbert James Draper, 1864-1920
Oil on canvas, signed
198 x 101 cm
Exhibited: London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1900
Simon Toll, who believes that this painting contains "one of Draper's most monumental figures," points out that artist "preferred to paint Greek legends, but in this case he painted Florrie Bird as Aurora, the Roman Goddess of the Dawn," and he speculates that Ovid's description of Eos (the equivalent Greek goddess) may have inspired the artist's treatment of the subject: "far in the crimsoning cast wakeful Dawn threw wide the shining doors of her rosefilled chambers" (101).
Nude study of Aurora

According to Toll, The Gates of Dawn, which at first glance appears to portray a proud, though thoughtful beauty, conveys Draper's fascination, even obsession, with destructive female sexuality:
Aurora is inviting and alluring, magnificently beautiful and proud, but she is also divinely powerful. Punished by Aphrodite for enticing Ares, Aurora was condemned to be restless and destructive in her pursuit of young men. In future years Draper considered painting a scene from the story of Aurora's love for Tithonus, a mortal granted immortality without eternal youth, metamorphosed into a grasshopper after his beauty faded. The discarded roses that litter die floor at Aurora's feet refer to her inexhaustible passion, and the parasitic bindweed flowers in her hair also allude to her strangling, obsessive desire. She is like the sirens: beautiful, erotic, insatiably voracious, and never able to live happily in the company of men. Aurora was even prepared to hypnotise and rape her lovers as they slept to satisfy her sexual hunger. Draper's femmes fatales simultaneously solicit and repel, entice and caution, desire and despise. [101]
Three observations: First, if Toll has evidence from the artist's notes or conversations he had with others, the artist could well have meant the painting to mean that, but roses can mean many things, including the obvious: roses, like the dawn, have a fragile evanescent beauty . . . but return in the cycle of time. Yes, she could be looking for her next victim, but she could also be looking towards the new day, since she is, after all, the dawn.
Second, if Draper "considered painting a scene from the story of Aurora's love for Tithonus, a mortal granted immortality without eternal youth," then he almost certainly drew upon Tennyson's powerful dramatic monologue, "Tithonus."
Third, comparing Draper's preparatory nude study of Florrie Bird with the finished painting, one can observe how much the artist departed from the model for his ideal: he changes (and covers) her awkwatd angular hip and adds a lush round abbdomen that his model did not have. — George P. Landow


Toll, Simon. Herbert Draper, 1863-1920: A Life Study. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors Club, 2003.