Artful Nature: Fashion and Theatricality 1770-1830

Women Artists: Pygmalion and Galatea

Women artists used neoclassical dress to analogize themselves to living sculptures, borrowing sculptural tropes as they posed and displayed their bodies on stages and in studios. They drew on the potent story of Pygmalion and Galatea, which most eighteenth-century viewers knew from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Pygmalion was a Cypriot king who became disgusted by real women, carved a beautiful ideal woman in ivory, fell in love with it, made offerings to it, and pleaded with Venus to bring it to life. As a potent embodiment of the aspirations to blur boundaries between art and life, and to bring the golden age of the past into the present, Pygmalion was suited to artistic innovations aimed at conveying greater authenticity, sensuality, and embodied naturalism, and the story aggrandized the creative role of the desiring male artist. Women artists, actresses, and fashionable women changed this gendered dynamic. Acting as both Pygmalion and Galatea, such women were both subjects and objects, both the genius artist and the living artwork.

Thomas Hellyer, after Anne Seymour Damer

Antony & Cleopatra. Act 5. Scene 2


Published June 4, 1803, by J. & J. Boydell 

This print of Anne Damer’s bas relief sculpture of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery features the moment when Cleopatra has declared her intention to kill herself to her maids, Charmian and Iras. Upon hearing the news, Iras dies after kissing Cleopatra goodbye. Damer recreates the trio of women. With Iras’s body in the background, a grieving Cleopatra stares blankly out at the viewer. Charmian holds on to her wrist, burying her head in the queen’s shoulder. Both women will subsequently commit suicide. Damer displays her skill in sculpting delicately crafted garments that suggest transparent fabrics: Cleopatra’s body appears through her gown, and Charmian’s dress falls nearly off her shoulders. The figures in the scene suggest sculptures that have come to life, yet the female artist is Pygmalion, complicating the standard trope of the animating power of male desire.

William Sharp, after John Opie

Boadicea Haranguing the Britons

Etching and engraving

Published November 1795, by R. Bowyer

John Opie’s image of Boadicea, the famous first- century British warrior queen remembered for her fierce courage against the Romans, presents the figure as a quintessential Galatea, or statue coming to life. A symbol of British nationalism and strength, the sculptural female also echoes contemporary portrayals of well-known late-eighteenth-century actresses such as Sarah Siddons. Boadicea’s story provided the opportunity to align British nationalism with classical culture and provide a historic antecedent for contemporary British women in neoclassical dress.

Diana Beauclerk

Drawing for Book III, Canto XII, 30–33, of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene ca. 1781


One of Horace Walpole’s closest female friends, Lady Diana Beauclerk (1734–1808) is perhaps best known for her drawings of Walpole’s gothic play The Mysterious Mother, housed in an expressly built room in Strawberry Hill, called the “Beauclerk Closet.” She was also an extremely talented watercolorist, miniaturist, and interior designer. This large-scale watercolor is one of five in a series that recreate specific scenes from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene featuring female characters. Here Beauclerk highlights the moment in Book III, Canto XII, where Amoret is tied to a stake and stabbed by a sorcerer. Britomart arrives just in time to reverse the consequences and free the distressed maiden. Beauclerk theatrically frames her figures with interior design motifs from Strawberry Hill and dresses Amoret in neoclassical costume echoing archetypal female sculptures.

James Parker, after Richard Westall

Macbeth. Act I. Scene V. Macbeth’s Castle. Lady Macbeth


Published June 4, 1800, by J. & J. Boydell

In this scene from Act I, Scene V, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, Richard Westall presents Lady Macbeth as a Boadicea figure, summoning the spirits of the night to give her the courage to convince her husband to brutally murder the king. By 1800 Sarah Siddons (1755–1831), the actress most closely associated with the role of Lady Macbeth, had risen in stature. Depictions of the actress by artists such as Sir Thomas Lawrence often represented her as an imposing statue. The artist’s conflation of Lady Macbeth, Siddons, and sculpture suggests the ways in which audiences understood Siddons to be representative of ideal Britishness even while she was performing the complicated role of a treacherous, power-seeking queen.

Frederick Rehberg

Drawings Faithfully Copied from Nature at Naples, Plate IV

Etching on tinted paper

Published October 12, 1797, by S.W. Fores

Lady Emma Hamilton (bap. 1765–1815), wife of Sir William Hamilton and later the mistress of Lord Nelson, captivated late-eighteenth-century audiences in Naples with her innovative performances. Dressed in neoclassical costume adorned with a shawl, Hamilton adopted a variety of poses, gestures, and expressions in a series of rapid transformations. Rehberg’s set of prints captures Hamilton in specific “attitudes.” They are tangible artifacts tracing Hamilton’s ephemeral performances as well as a record of her staging and costume choices. As she formed herself into classical artworks coming to life, Hamilton took on the roles not only of the enlivened sculpture Galatea, but also of the sculptor Pygmalion. In addition, she acted as Venus, sparking her own stilled postures into life and movement, as she shifted from one to the next.