An Offering to Hymen. Sir Alfred Gilbert, R. A. (1854-1934). 1884. Bronze with rich brown patination on an ebonized wood socle. 11 inches; (29 cm.) Details: base and torso. The photographs at right and left courtesy of Robert Bowman; the one in the center, without the additional base, comes from a private collection. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
It appears that An Offering to Hymen was begun in Rome in 1884, another of Gilbert’s bronzes inspired by the Italian Renaissance masters. It wasn’t until his return to London in 1885, however, that he modelled the statue from one of the three Miss Pettigrews – either Hetty, Lily or Rose. The Pettigrew sisters were professional models who posed for many leading Victorian artists during the 1880s and 1890s, including Millais, Whistler, Leighton, Holman Hunt, Poynter, and Onslow Ford. It is uncertain which of the Pettigrews was the model for this statuette, but it was likely one of the two elder sisters.
The finished bronze was first shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 [no. 367], where the work was highly acclaimed by the public and critics alike. It was later shown in 1889 at the Paris Salon [no. 313]. This large bronze statuette was again exhibited at the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1901, lent by J. P. Heseltine, who was the original purchaser of this version. This full-size cast, now in a private collection in England, was 30 3/4 in. (78 cm) high, but this may be a unique cast. At the time of Gilbert’s bankruptcy in 1901 he left the plaster for the large version in storage. After he returned to London from Bruges in 1926 he attempted unsuccessfully to find the plaster cast but it was apparently lost. It is therefore uncertain whether any other of the large casts in bronze exist. Works offered for sale have been the reduced casts, less than half that size. The presence of the large cast, however, suggests that Gilbert originally conceived An Offering to Hymen as equal in status to his Perseus Arming and Icarus in his progression of works portraying “adolescents facing the passage from youth to maturity”(Dorment 113). Gilbert was a passionate advocate of the lost-wax [cire perdue] casting technique for sculpture in England, whereas previously its use had largely been limited to jewelry and small art objects. He began experimenting with the technique in c.1885-86, at about the same time as casts of this work were first produced.
This statuette is about the innocence of puberty and the awakening of sexuality. It portrays a young woman poised on the brink of adulthood, standing in prayer before the altar of Hymen, the god of marriage and an attendant of Venus, and holding out votive offerings as she contemplates her imminent future as a married woman. John Christian has noted: “Her stiff carriage conveys anxiety and denotes the solemnity and formality with which she will perform the ceremony”(76). In different casts she may hold a variety of offerings including a cup, a flower (a rose), a sprig of hawthorn, a tiny figure of Anteros, the brother of Eros and the god of unrequited love, or a putto with an inverted torch. The decorations of miniature classical grotesques on the base is suggestive of a Roman pagan altar.
Casts of An Offering to Hymenare in the public collections of the Manchester Art Gallery; the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
The photographs at right and left courtesy of Robert Bowman; the one in the center comes from a private collection. Robert Bowman and the Fine Art Society, London, have most generously given their permission to use information, images, and text from the catalogue named above in theVictorian Web. Copyright on text and images from their catalogues remains, of course, with them. [GPL]
Beattie, Susan. The New Sculpture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
Bowman, Robert. Sir Alfred Gilbert and the New Sculpture. London: The Fine Art Society, 2008.
Dorment, Richard. Victorian High Renaissance. Minneapolis: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1978. No. 95.
Created 6 June 2008
Last modified 4 May 2021