Evelyn De Morgan. "Cadmus and Harmonia". (1877). All rights reserved.

The theme of woman and the serpent is recurrent in 19th century. This relationship use to link Eve or Lilith with the serpent in many cases, but there are other women connected with the reptile from contemporary sources, as the Baudelaire’s poem Le Serpent qui danse o the Flaubert novel Salambó, and also myths taken from the Greek-Roman mythology.

This post is referred to a painting based in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, concretely to the legend of Cadmus and Harmonia.

This masterpiece was painted by one of the few Pre-Raphaelite female artists: Evelyn de Morgan. The date of the painting (1877) talks about a late Pre-Raphaelism, the current lead by John William Waterhouse.

To introduce the wactcher about the painting, Evelyn de Morgan put a text close to the canvas a legend extracther from Metamorphosis, Chapter four:

“With lambent tongue he kissed her patient face, crept in her bosom as his dwelling place entwined her neck, and shared the loved embrace”.

Victim of Zeus rage, Cadmus was turned into serpent, and has to live with this sape close to his beloved Harmonia. In this way Evelyn de Morgan has represented the tragedy of this couple.

Looking to the painting we can question ourselves: is this a non-erotic painting on the contrary of images of Eve or Lilith with the serpent? We must say no, most of all if we read the Ovid text. There is a loving affair inbetween Harmonia and her lover Cadmus turned into a serpent. But there are elements in the painting that shows contention: the pure blue sky, the blonde hair of Harmonia tied back and her eyes looking to the infinite, while Cadmus is coiled around the body of his lover. This fact could be related with the feeling of solitude of Harmonia due to the tragedy of her lover will be forever a serpent and not a man.

Maybe this is one of the few examples of representation of a woman and a serpent that is far from the attribution of perversity to the female sex.
Just about the style, as we mention, this is a painting in the way of Waterhouse nymphs. When I saw for the first time this painting I immediately thought in Waterhouse and I was surprised when I discover the author was a woman.

No doubt, the Pre-Raphaelite female characters have in common a singular beauty. I think them have reflect in their paintings the most pure and elevate female beauty.


2 thoughts on “Cadmus and Harmonia

  1. Two points of discussion that intrigue me:
    1- Can we find a contradiction between the expression of his face (as you said looking at some distant point) and her hands caressing the snake?
    2- Isn’t the snake too long and tying her legs?

    We should meet soon, you know you can come for a visit whenever you want and give me some art lessons around here!

    1. Dear Godsforrk,

      I answer the two questions:
      1-Right, her hands are caressing the snake because she loves Cadmus, but she is looking to a distant point because she is sad for this circunstance.
      2-Perhaps the snake is too long and this could suggest the serpent be a phallic symbol. This could be possible if the author was a man, but in this case the painter is a female. I think she wanted to emphasize de big link of love that exists between Cadmo and Harmonia though their terrible fate.

      I hope to have solved your questions, and it would be a pleasure to meet you soon and discuss about Art.
      Many thanks for your interest in the posts of this blog!

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