Why is this Sculptor Kissing His Own Statue?

Crossing the line between artist and muse

Christopher P Jones
5 min readJan 13, 2023

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Christopher P Jones is the author of How to Read Paintings, an introduction to some of the most fascinating artworks in art history.

Detail of ‘Pygmalion and Galatea’ (c. 1890) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Oil on canvas. 88.9 × 68.6 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, U.S. Image source The Met (Public domain)

This painting shows a sculptor passionately gripping his own marble creation and kissing it. The lady statue appears to respond: she clasps the sculptor’s hand and leans into the kiss.

With fragments of stone scattered on the floor and the sculptor’s hammer discarded, the statue embraces her creator.

Is this the fantasy of all artists: that their beloved creations come to life and love them back?

More Perfect Than Real Life

Pygmalion and Galatea (c. 1890) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Oil on canvas. 88.9 × 68.6 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, U.S. Image source The Met (Public domain)

The moment of coming to life is indeed the theme of this painting. Notice, for instance, how the colour of the marble gradually changes as it rises through the sculpture, from stone-grey to flesh-pink.

The painting is titled Pygmalion and Galatea.

Drawn from ancient myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor from the island of Cyprus. He had an objectionable opinion of the women he saw around him, many of whom had turned to prostitution, as the Roman poet Ovid tells us:

“Pygmalion saw these women waste their lives
in wretched shame, and critical of faults
which nature had so deeply planted through
their female hearts, he lived in preference,
for many years unmarried.”

From the Metamorphoses. Source

The bachelor Pygmalion remained alone in his studio, preferring to spend his time carving a statue out of ivory, giving it “exquisite beauty, which no woman of the world has ever equalled.”

He named her Galatea. In Ancient Greek, Galatea means “she who is milk-white” and was related to the sea nymph Galatea, the daughter of the water god Nereus.

Reference to Galatea the sea nymph is made in the base of the sculpture with a fish. Image source The Met (Public domain)

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