Sunday, 12 October 2014


“Love does not just sit there, like a stone; it had to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.” - Ursula Le Guin

Jean-Baptiste Regnault (9 October 1754 – 12 November 1829) was a French painter. He was born in Paris, and began life at sea in a merchant vessel. At the age of fifteen his talent attracted attention, and he was sent to Italy by M. de Monval under the care of Bardin. After his return to Paris, Regnault, in 1776, won the Grand Prix for his painting ‘Alexandre et Diogène’, and in 1783 he was elected Academician. His diploma picture, ‘The Education of Achilles by Chiron’, is now in the Louvre, as also the ‘Christ Taken Down from the Cross’, originally executed for the royal chapel at Fontainebleau, and two minor works – the ‘Origin of Painting’ and the work shown above, ‘Pygmalion Praying Venus to give Life to his Statue’ (1786 Musée National du Château et des Trianons).

Besides various small pictures and allegorical subjects, Regnault was also the author of many large historical paintings; and his school, which reckoned amongst its chief attendants Guérin, Crepin, Lafitte, Blondel, Robert Lefèvre, Henriette Lorimier and Alexandre Menjaud, was for a long while the rival in influence of that of David. Besides Merry-Joseph Blondel, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, Robert Lefèvre, and Henriette Lorimier, Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s students include: Godefroy Engelmann, Louis Hersent, Charles Paul Landon, Hippolyte Lecomte, Jacques Réattu, Jean-Hilaire Belloc. Jean-Baptiste Regnault was married first to Sophie Meyer, then Sophie Félicité Beaucourt. He died in Paris and is buried in Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was an accomplished sculptor. His relationships with the opposite sex were less than fortunate and it seems that no matter how beautiful the women who modelled for him were, their hearts and souls were lacking in beauty. He determined to create his ideal in womanhood by making an ivory statue. He put his heart and soul into the creation of this masterwork and imbued it not only with his ideal beauty, but also all of the imagined virtues that his ideal woman should have.

Upon finishing this wondrous statue, which he named Galatea (“milky white”), he fell in love with his own creation. He spent all of his time contemplating it and adorning it with roses, pining and sighing, melting away with unrequited love. Finally, in desperation, he prayed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to deliver him from his miserable existence. Aphrodite brought the statue to life in answer to his prayers. True enough, Galatea proved to be intelligent and compassionate, beautiful in soul as well as in looks, softly-spoken but independent, erudite and artistic like her husband. Their daughter Paphos gave her name to the city of Paphos, the centre of Aphrodite’s worship on Cyprus. The myth was the inspiration for many artists and writers.

George Bernard Shaw’s comedic masterpiece, “Pygmalion”, is his funniest and most popular play (first performed in 1913). It was claimed by Shaw to be a didactic drama about phonetics, and its antiheroic hero, Henry Higgins, is a phonetician, however, the play is a humane comedy about love and the English class system. Higgins trains an uneducated Cockney flower girl so that she passes off as a lady, in both manner and speech. It also examines the repercussions of the experiment’s success. The scene in which Eliza Doolittle appears in high society when she has acquired a correct accent but no notion of polite conversation is one of the funniest in English drama. Pygmalion has been both filmed (1938), winning an Academy Award for Shaw for his screenplay, and adapted into an immensely popular musical, “My Fair Lady” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (1956; and the film version, 1964).

The legend of Pygmalion is an interesting philosophical proposition about love and how we view the beloved. The creation of an ideal image with which we fall in love and the subsequent search for that ideal in life is widespread in myth, legend, literature, drama and of course in real life. When we fall in love we fall in love with the image of the ideal that is projected onto the victim of our affections. How closely that real beloved corresponds with our mental ideal of the beloved, may have something to do with the long-term success of the relationship. The situation of course is made more complex when there two people in love with each other, rather than one lover and one beloved. Attainment of one’s ideal in love may be seen as an allegory of the soul attaining a heavenly state of ideal bliss.

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