Erotic depictions of women in drawing, painting, sculpture and photography from the dawn of man to the present.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Italian Venus: Antonia Caiva as Andromeda for Edward John Poynter

Andromeda (1869)

This sumptuous nude (one of the finest in English painting) is by Edward John Poynter (1836-1919).  It depicts Andromeda, chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster, shortly before being rescued by Perseus.  Most artists' versions of this popular myth include the heroic Perseus and the ravening monster but Poynter, a superb interpreter of the female nude, focuses on the figure of Andromeda in a pose of sorrowful resignation, rather than racked with fear. 

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) Study for Roger Freeing Angelica (1818)

Triple P saw this painting last year, during a temporary exhibition at Leighton House in London (it belongs to a Mexican collector, Juan Antonio Pérez Simón)  It is not entirely obvious from the reproduction but in real life it is quite clear that Poynter has painted Andromeda's reddish pubic hair and this is generally regarded as the first such representation in British painting.  He could get away with it because the painting has a classical theme and it is quite small: just 20 inches by 14 inches.  It is probably not a coincidence that a preparatory drawing by Ingres, known as Andromeda (but actually a study for Roger freeing Angelica; a subject with a similar theme) and depicted in an almost identical pose, which Poynter was probably shown in Paris, also has the model's pubic hair included.

John Everett Millais (1829-1896) The Knight Errant (1870)

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1870 and the following year Millais suggested to Poynter that he take on a commission for five large canvases for Lord Wharncliffe's billiard room in his house, Wortley Hall, in Yorkshire.  Poynter undertook to expand the composition by copying his original Andromeda figure in a larger scale and by including the monster and Perseus.  He originally intended adding draperies to the naked Andromeda, mainly because Millais, when exhibiting his much larger The Knight Errant at the same 1870 Royal Academy exhibition, was bombarded with criticism over his depiction of a naked, chained woman.  However, Millais' figures were almost life size, giving the woman's nudity a much more shocking impact than Poynter's small Andromeda.  Fortunately, Lord Wharncliffe persuaded Poynter to eschew the cover up.

You can see Poynter's new painting in this photograph of the old billiards room at Wortley Hall.  Sadly, all the paintings there were destroyed during bombing raids in WW2 so we only have old photographs to give us an idea of what it looked like.  The picture immediately above is a photograph of Poynter's oil sketch for the painting.

Edward John Poynter. Study of Antonia Caiva as Andromeda (c.1869)

Both the face and body of Poynter's Andromeda belong to the Italian model Antonia Caiva.  Italian models (both men and women) were much sought after by Victorian artists on account of their fine forms (especially the hands and feet of the women), professionalism and (perhaps, surprisingly to Triple P) their punctuality.  Poynter himself told potential students that he would only hire the best Italian models models as: “They are not only in general build and proportion, and in natural grace and dignity far superior to our English models; but they have a natural beauty, especially in the extremities.”

Poynter. Study of Antonia Caiva as Andromeda (c.1869)

The number of Italian models in London increased enormously in 1870, when the Franco-Prussian War led to an exodus from Paris.  Antonia must have already been in London before this, however.  As we have seen, in some of our other posts on nineteenth century artists' models, most stopped posing when they got married but Antonia only posed to help clear her husband's gambling debts.

Poynter: Psyche in the Temple of Love (1882)

Poynter used her regularly as a model.  Here she is in his Psyche in the Temple of Love.  We know that she modelled for at least a decade so this could have been done from life specifically for the painting but it could have just as well have been based on sketches done previously.

Poynter: On the Terrace (1903)

Here she is in in his Alma-Tademaesque On the Terrace.  Painted over thirty years after Andromeda Poynter would, no doubt, have used sketches he did of Antonia decades before for this one.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs (1880)

Poynter's brother in law was Edward Burne-Jones who also used Antonia as a model.  Principally she posed for all the bodies in The Golden Stairs and Burne-Jones then added different heads featuring friends and family.  For example the girl fourth from top, holding the trumpet, is Burne-Jones daughter, Margaret and the girl holding the violin on the right, is May, daughter of William Morris. Just above her, however, visible in a head and shoulders view is a girl with a familiar profile and colouring.  Could this be Antonia?

Burne-Jones. Sketch of a girl for The Golden Staircase (1877)

A sketch survives and it does look very much like her (see the full length sketch below).  Although the painting wasn't finished until 1880, Burne-Jones began work on it in 1876.

This sketch is of the figure at the bottom left of the painting and fortunately, in this case, we do not need to speculate as Burne-Jones has written 'Antonia' down the left hand side of the picture.

Burne-Jones.  Three studies for The Golden Stairs

Here are three more studies done for The Golden Stairs at the same time, which are almost certainly Antonia as well. Antonia, according to Burne-Jones, "was like Eve and Semiramis, but if she had a mind at all, which I always doubted, it had no ideas."  However he said that she had "a splendour and solemnity: her glory lasted nearly ten years".

 Burne-Jones.  The Rock of Doom (1884)

Burne-Jones.  The Doom Fulfilled (1884)

Curiously, she was also the model for Burne-Jones own series of paintings around the Perseus legend posing as Andromeda (amongst others) once more.  His Perseus series was of ten paintings commissioned in 1875.  Burne-Jones worked on them for ten years but they were never completed, although gouache cartoons are on display in Southampton Art Gallery.  Antonia's lithe form is apparent throughout.

Sadly, we don't know what happened to Antonia, although it seems she fell on hard times. In later life she wrote to Burne-Jones from hospital asking for help.  "Sir, I was always obedient to you.  I am poor and ill."  We don't know if Burne-Jones replied but after that she disappears from history, leaving these images of her glorious form as her legacy.


  1. Thank you very much for this post. Well researched as always. As an artist I do appreciate your posts on Victorian/Edwardian artist's models, I do hope you can unearth more. Incidentally I notice Robert Crumb has an exhibition at the Robert Zwenmmer Gallery in London, any plans on a post on his particular take on femininity?

    1. I am always worried that no-one enjoys my art posts but they are the ones I enjoy doing the most! I certainly need to do Dorothy Dene/Ada Pullen. As a pen and ink artist myself I admire Crumb's technique without necessarily liking his output!

  2. I really like the art posts too (and it gives me an excuse to look at the rest....).