Salthouse Docks, Liverpool

In Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow, Atkinson Grimshaw paints nature as a sort of dreamland. A winged nude — the goddess Iris — hovers beside a shadowy pond, while shades of gold, red, orange, brown, blue, purple, and green blend together in the background to form a faint forest. This mélange of colors echoes Iris's role as the rainbow goddess of Greek mythology, and Grimshaw emphasizes this role again through the curve of Iris's body, which mirrors a rainbow's arc. Unlike many of Grimshaw's other paintings — which feature vague human forms against more detailed backgrounds — in this painting Iris's body is outlined in gold, while the background forest is indistinct.

The style of this painting strays from that of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It lacks photographic clarity — Iris's body is simply drawn, without lifelike depth, and the trees in the background are undefined, in contrast to the scientifically accurate details found in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. This soft, vague appearance thus furthers the painting's ethereal atmosphere. Also, like other Grimshaw paintings, Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow has an unknown light source, which adds to the painting's dreamlike quality.

Discussion Questions

1. In Greek mythology, Iris is both the goddess of the rainbow and a messenger to the gods. Is her second role also represented in the painting?

2. Why might Grimshaw have chosen to portray Iris with her arms folded across her chest? What is significant about this pose?

3. Grimshaw paints Iris with wings. How does this addition affect how we perceive her place as a goddess? What might the wings' appearance signify?

4. Iris's gaze to the side identifies her as a contemplative woman figure. How does she compare to the woman in Sandys's The Laurel Wreath? How does she compare to Rossetti's depiction of contemplative women, such as his many portraits of Jane Morris?

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Last modified 21 November 2006