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Herbert Draper, Victorian Sensualist

Herbert James Draper, By Summer Seas
By Summer Seas, 1912

Born in London, 1863, Herbert James Draper was a Victorian Classical painter. He made his early career on mythological subjects then moved onward to portraiture, yet it is his keen understanding and appreciation of the female form, in an age of repression, that I find fascinating about his work. I cannot think of another artist who combined Classical structure of the body with a relaxed sensuality and a deep awareness of body language as a key narrative element.

Observe By Summer Seas above and you can clearly see the difference between the two females. The kneeling figure is very Classical and pretty, hair tightly compressed in a traditional scarf, yet she seems to defer to the graceful and sensuous figure seated on the rocks, hair blowing gently in the wind. Note how Draper uses a very cool skin palette to give their skin a soft glow. It contrasts beautifully with that incredible water behind them, reflecting the warm rocky mountain. Draper perches them both on a natural rock, emphasizing the natural beauty of their feminine traits, both sensual and traditional. Draper loved the pose of the sensual girl so much in fact, that he reused it again in the painting below a year later. Note the sensitivity of the drawing in this lovely young model that posed for him:

Herbert James Draper, Study for The Kelpie
Study for The Kelpie, 1913

Thekelpie large
The Kelpie, 1913

Note here that the mood is entirely different than By Summer Seas. Draper still uses the same themes of shimmering water with vibrant colors, interesting rock formations, with a verdant forest in the background this time. The young woman here is timid and young, just beginning to explore her own world and her femininity. In Scottish folklore a kelpie is a water spirit that can change form into anything from a creature to a human but here, Draper gives her an innocence that is individual, as if we already know her and yet she is mysterious. This kind of insight into the mystique of female beauty is in the realm of the poet. A true poet.

Herbert Draper - The Lament for Icarus - Google Art Project
The Lament for Icarus, 1898

A common theme in art, the mythology of Icarus is an age-old story painted many times over in history as an ominous warning of the hubris of youth or over-ambition. Here, Icarus is slumped onto a rocky formation with three nymphs attempting to revive him but to no avail. His swarthy complexion, from being so close to the sun contrasts to their pristine light skin. Emotion is the key ingredient in these wonderful faces, and the lithesome young nymph below who leans forward eager to know his fate. The majesty of those massive warm, eagle-like wings is a testament to the hubris and yet we are secretly impressed by his ambition. Draper paints that background sky like a fiery Romantic, a Turner, as if the sun itself wants to destroy humanity. A powerful and dramatic piece.

Here is the original I took a shot of at the Tate Gallery in London last September. I couldn't remove those reflections!

A detail

Another detail: look at the facial expressions in these beautiful figures. How can this not be inspiring!!

Herbert James Draper, Study for a Naiad in Icarus.
Study for a Naiad from the Lament of Icarus, 1898

Les portes de l'aube
The Gates of Dawn, 1900

A stunningly beautiful painting, Draper seems to meld beauty and assertive sexuality. Aurora, the goddess of dawn, popularly portrayed in both sculpture and painting, comes to announce the arrival of the sun. She also had many mortal lovers, especially younger men, and the roses at her feet symbolize a passion without limits, insatiable and destructive at the same time. Interestingly, Draper gives her the lovely face of a famous actress of the day and in doing so also depicts Aurora without any sort of contemptuous face. He is suggesting that lust itself is not a bad thing, a reaction to the Victorianism of his day, which perhaps was on the verge of a change in attitude.

Draper Herbert The Pearls of Aphrodite
The Pearls of Aphrodite, 1907

A more Classical sensibility with Draper's gift for musical figure arrangement and body language. Look at how the nymphs on the right naively adore the glory of Aphrodite and want to be like her, adorned with pearls here and portrayed as a privileged English socialite, clearly vain and full of herself. Note the black slave fishing for pearls while the other black girl gazes up at her in awe. There is biting social commentary in this painting that proves Draper was far more than merely a painter of pretty women. This was a man who had an insight into the psyche of women unlike most artists of his day, or before. Draper understood that beauty was as much a state of mind as it is a physical trait, and that sensuality is something we feel, not merely display, that nudity can mean many different things...innocence, gullibility, confidence and yes...our sensual nature. Unabashedly, like Aurora, and without apology. We are human, and the only shame is in arrogance.


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