Object of the Month: Endymion, c. 1903-04

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Posted 19th April 2017

by Dr Beatrice Bertram

Besotted with the handsome shepherd Endymion, Diana, goddess of the moon, begged her father Jupiter to grant the mortal eternal youth so that he would never leave her. Here we see the ethereal divinity, arched into the shape of a crescent moon, on her nightly ritual of stealing across her lover's languid body — forever preserved in sleep — to gently kiss him.

Having first conceived the subject in around 1868, and having outlined the design for it on a large canvas, G F Watts produced several smaller versions of the theme before, early one morning three decades later, Mary Watts found he had returned to the picture, determined to make it 'more visionary and mystic, the moon goddess only luminously visible.'

Diana is indeed a mysterious, intangible presence in the scene, oddly devoid of body, flesh and materiality. Endymion's nude, sculptural figure, on the other hand, clearly references the Dionysus of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum, which Watts revered. The cool grey and blue colour palette in the upper half of the image — suggestive of marble and moonbeams — starts to suffuse the warm, muted orange and ochre tones of the lower half.

The composition is contained within a circle, and their love story takes place at the intersection of two curves that bind their bodies and are repeated in Diana's rippling, diaphanous draperies. Light meets dark, life meets ceaseless sleep, god meets mortal, woman meets man, spirit-being meets body, all at an unfulfilling fulcrum where lips never quite touch.

When it was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1904 — just a few months before Watts's death — The Athenaeum declared: 'The spirit of the Moon Goddess, huge, pale, and dimly seen, broods over her recumbent lover with an insistence that is almost terrible.'