Frederick Sandys's reputation rested upon his powers as an illustrator as well as on his skillful draftsmanship. In this wood engraving his talents explicitly portray the climax of Algernon Swinburne's poem "Danaë," which appeared in Once a Week on 7 December 1867. The publishers suppressed Sandys's design because they found the male nude in the tapestry too erotic, and it was not published until 1888 when it appeared in the Hobby Horse illustrating an article entitled "Frederick Sandys and the Wood-cut Designers of Thirty Years Ago."
In Roman mythology, Danaë's father Acrisius had been warned that his daughter's child would cause his death. Attempting to thwart fate, he locked her within a brazen tower, but despite Acrisius's precautions, Jupiter appeared to Danaë in a golden shower and impregnated her; Perseus was their son.
Swinburne concentrates upon describing Danaë's melancholy existence and the fulfillment of her erotic longings born of her ennui. Locked within the unchanging isolation of her tower, she dreams of an imaginary lover and depicts him in a tapestry.
I only rest awhile,
To dream the beauty of thy smile,
And only wake again to picture thee.
When Jupiter arrives, the lover in the tapestry seems to disappear, she yields willingly to her desires, and the golden shower descends upon her.
Sandys, who depicts this climactic moment, has remained quite close to the text that describes her standing "with white arm fixed in air,/ And head thrown back, and streaming hair" as "faster and brighter flowed the rain." Sandys has portrayed Danaë as a sensual, sexually aroused creature with thrown-back head, halfclosed eyes, raised arm, and swooning pose. The bands of her classical dress accentuate her womanliness. Sandys has also included the dream lover in the loom, but as the unraveling, forgotten ball of yarn indicates, he has been abandoned in this encounter with Jupiter.
In the treatment of space, the woman's hair, and other elements that Sandys uses to depict this languorous, embowered woman, one rinds a characteristically Pre-Raphaelite style and theme. As an illustrator, Sandys has not deviated from the poem at all. Both his adherence to the text he illustrated and his recognized talents led Swinburne to remark in an 1876 letter to Theodore Watts that "nobody but Sandys or Millais ... of all who do illustrate verse or prose, shall touch my verse" (3:163).
Sandys's work parallels Hunt's Lady of Shalott in several interesting ways. Both works depict a single woman weaving at a loom in enforced isolation within a tower. But whereas the Lady of Shalott weaves for an elevating purpose, Danaë does so only as a purely selfish endeavor. Furthermore, unlike the Lady, she experiences the act of love. The different emphasis of each work well characterizes each artist — Hunt the moralizer and Sandys the sensual aesthete.
Notes: Although Swinburne's poem, which clearly inspired the work, was nor published until 1867, an inscription on the verso of the engraving, perhaps in the artist's own hand, dates the work at 1860. Furthermore, a plate from George Du Maurier's "Legend of Camelot," a Pre-Raphaelite parody published in Punch in 1866, includes the figure of a woman who seems derived from Sandys's image. Thus the date of Danaë is problematic.
Swinburne, Algernon C. :Forward." The Letters. Ed. Cecil Y. Lang. 6 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.
Norris, Lisa. Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and its Contexts. Ed. George P. Landow. Brown University: 1985. p. 158.
Frederick Sandys, 1829-1904 Brighton: Museum and Art Gallery, 1974. no. 288.
Last modified 13 November 2009