John William Waterhouse’s Pandora painted in 1896 is an imagined reproduction of the mythical figure, rendered is a darkly gothic and monumental style by the renowned British painter.
At the time of painting Waterhouse was long established as one of the great artists of his age. As a young man Waterhouse entered the Royal Academy in London and at the close of his studies he was already exhibiting at the institution’s prestigious annual Summer Exhibition. Beginning first as a painter in the neo-classical style, and attempting to produce true-to-life reproductions of the ancient world through a close attention to archaeological artefacts, Waterhouse began to portray the Classical past through the lens of the everyday. By the end of the century Waterhouse had established a fervent interest in magic and the occult, particularly in the guise of femme fatales, a recurring theme throughout his life. Having gradually shunned his taste for narrative paintings towards the close of the century, Waterhouse began to focus predominantly on figurative female subjects, culminating in canvases of such majesty as Pandora.
Waterhouse chooses to render the figure as a being of unbearable curiosity as she peers into the sacred vessel given to her, so the myth goes, by the God Zeus to hold the blessings of the gods. Upon opening the chest these divine wishes embattled the weaker human race with chaos and disorder. In the myth Pandora is depicted as the first woman on earth, created out of the soil in response to the loss of heavenly fire to the thief Prometheus. Akin to the Biblical eve, Pandora’s catastrophic curiosity is the cause of man’s fall from grace and favour amongst the gods. One of the artist’s most delicate canvases, a dreamy mysticism seems to pervade this figurate reproduction of a child-like inquisitiveness that seems to belie the terrible fate that will follow.
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