Object of the Month: Clytie, c. 1865-69

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Posted 20th January 2017

by Dr Beatrice Bertram

G F Watts was fascinated by the mythological tale of Clytie and returned time and again to the theme between the late-1860s and 1880s, executing it in a diverse range of media from bronze, marble and terracotta to chalk and oil on canvas.

We currently have on display this beautiful bronze version, which was gifted to Watts Gallery by Lilian Chapman, the artist's adopted daughter.

Clytie — whose story is recounted in the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses — was a water nymph who was in love with the sun-god Apollo and would gaze longingly at him as he drove his chariot across the sky from east to west.

After ten days of moving only her head to follow his daily course, Clytie awoke to find herself transformed into a sunflower, with her limbs rooted to the ground and leaves enfolding her body, condemning her to a lifetime of turning her blossom-covered face towards the sun.

Watts chose to depict Clytie's moment of transformation from flesh to flower, as fronds begin to creep up her torso. He adds an element of dynamism to the work through the well-defined musculature and torsion of her body, referencing Michelangelo's famed 'figura serpentina' and alluding to the next stage of metamorphosis: the repeated heliotropic movement of this woman-turned-flower's head.

Interestingly, Watts used several different models for the piece. The muscles were studied from an Italian male model, Angelo Colorossi, and her coiled hair from a current sitter, Louise Lowther. Moreover, the contorted shoulders came from Edward Burne-Jones's wife, Georgiana, with her infant squirming in her arms, while for the form and face, Watts used his housemaid — and favourite model — Mary 'Long Mary' Bartley.