Warm Ivory

The opposite to Medusa, Galatea goes from ivory to flesh. “The Perfect Woman” to one particular (creepy) sculptor.

I still am not quite over my visit to the Met, and have been thinking about this specific painting ever since I realized I didn’t take a picture of it while I was there. It’s been a few months of random “I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture” running through my head at very odd times. Despite not having my own picture and close ups, I have borrowed from the Met’s website and page for this painting.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1890

I don’t care for the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, but I’ll give a brief background story. There’s the Greek version, and then the Roman version. In the Greek version, the statue that Pygmalion sculpted was of Aphrodite herself, whereas in the Roman version, it was just considered a beautiful maiden. Either way, Pygmalion made the sculpture with the intent to create the most beautiful and perfect woman. He swore off the living women because of their “sins” or “crimes”. By sins and crimes, I mean prostitutes. He was so disgusted that instead he made a woman of ivory, in the image he felt that women should be. This is why she is referred to as the maiden. After loving (sometimes literally) the statue, he makes a sacrifice to Aphrodite (or Venus, if Roman) to help him, to bring the statue to life. Aphrodite hears him and grants him his wish. After returning from the sacrifice he finds Galatea to have taken on life-like features, like softness and warmth. He’s thrilled, thanks the goddess, while Galatea, and I quote from Ovid, “Raising scared eyes to heaven…”. I can’t help but wonder whether Galatea was actually happy about any of this, but this is Greek and Roman mythology. Unfortunately, they didn’t really care. She’s a woman. Kind of?

Now for the cool stuff

Thanks to the Met’s website I was still able to hone in on what was really interesting about this painting. The first thing I noticed when I walked up close to it was the beautiful color transition from the chalky white ivory to the slightly pink skin. On her legs specifically, you can see where she is still ivory and where she is turning into a human. The fade between the two colors is practically flawless. This is actually one of the advantages of working with oil paint. Oil paint is much easier to manipulate over longer periods of time, so Gérôme had quite a bit of time to make the transition perfect. The positioning of the legs also gives a great indication of her being a statue, she is stuck in a very rigid stance. Also her hands are able to grasp Pygmalion’s arm as he wraps it around her. You’re able to see the pinkness in her skin and the softness of flesh there as well, as opposed to the bottom half of her very much still ivory legs.

Something I find very entertaining about European artists painting Greek myth is that there is almost always a cupid somewhere, without fail. In this case though, it makes sense to have a cupid around. Cupid often did the bidding of Aphrodite, so I would say it is safe to assume he is there to make sure it goes smoothly, that Galatea will love Pygmalion back. Or, it’s possible he’s there to cause mischief as that would be in character for him too. Either way, it’s worth noting that there is a fading out cupid within the painting, indicative of love, and following Aphrodite’s orders.

Personally, I do not like this myth. But the painting is a different story. The artist did a beautiful job using such subtle details to convey the change in the statue, as if you are watching Galatea change in real time in front of you. There are three known versions of this painting, from three different angles. I wouldn’t mind tracking them down to see how they match up, and to see how he manages to create those subtleties in different points of view.


Abby, and Laura Brodian. “Pygmalion and Galatea, the Myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.” Greek Myths & Greek Mythology, 27 Mar. 2020, http://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/myth-of-pygmalion-and-galatea/.

“Jean-Léon Gérôme: Pygmalion and Galatea.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436483. Accessed 10 Sept. 2023.

Ovid, and Stephanie McCarter. “Pygmalion and the Ivory Statue.” Metamorphoses, Penguin Classics, London, 2023, pp. 289–290.

“Pygmalion.” PYGMALION – Cyprian King & Sculptor of Greek Mythology, Theoi Project, http://www.theoi.com/Heros/Pygmalion.html. Accessed 10 Sept. 2023.

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