Tag Archives: exploitation

Mythology On Canvas: Mythological Model (5)

Since this post is something of an epitaph for Maria Zambaco, I think it  more appropriate to leave her clothed and to make some attempt at examining her as a real woman rather than any of the mythological figures (save one) for which she was posed. With one exception, I believe that the images of her that I am using this week are study sketches (and one painting) executed by Edward Burne-Jones, the artist  for whose paintings she gathered the most attention and controversy.


I see her life as something of a multiple choice question. Was she:

a) a victim of exploitation?

b) an accomplice in her own exploitation?

c) both of the above?

d) none of the above?

I cannot assign a correct answer to this question with any confidence. In matters of artistic taste, nude portraits are often considered acceptable, but not all people would agree on this. Maria was herself an artist and a fairly accomplished one. She was also headstrong and wealthy, so it is difficult to imagine her being forced into much of anything against her will.  However,  being willing need not be exclusive of being exploited. I would hope that her true personality would be closer to the impressions I gather from the following portrait: intelligence, pensiveness, dignity.

Portrait of a Lady by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Portrait of a Lady by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

On the one hand, her decisions and strong will would indicate that she was not a victim of exploitation. On the other, certain behaviors and events in her life might be considered symptomatic of someone who was. Her attempt to involve Burne-Jones in a suicide pact after he backed out of a decision to leave his wife does not strike me as the expression of a self-assured and independent spirit. Representations of her body were also displayed very publicly.


I question the assumption that women truly empower themselves within a male-dominated system by taking ownership of sexualized stereotypes and roles assigned to them by that system.

Sabra tied to the pole as the maidens depart
Sabra tied to the pole as the maidens depart

In looking at various aspects of her personality as described by other commentators, I cannot say that I understand who this striking woman truly was. She remains, for me, an enigma. Maria, may you rest in peace.


Mythology on Canvas: Mythological Model (3)

It is difficult to see Maria Zambaco as a victim of exploitation when one gets a hint of how headstrong she seems to have been. That combined with her wealth and her skill as an artist push me toward believing that her life may have been more about psychology and morals than it was about sociology and the treatment of women. That she fit in with the trends of the times, however, seems rather obvious to me.

Venus Epithalamia by Edward Burne-Jones
Venus Epithalamia by Edward Burne-Jones

The willful participation of women in a system that limits the roles and portrayals of women becomes more nuanced when it is done to increase their individual power. Or is it really power if it plays to male fantasies? And what about the rest of women who must deal with the fallout of disagreeable male attitudes that have been catered to and encouraged?

This week, I will present a series of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones with Maria as the featured model. This particular series is referred to as the Pygmalion cycle. Click on the image to enlarge the pictures of all four paintings.


This is yet another adaptation of a story from The Metamorphoses by Ovid. As is typically the case with Roman mythology, it is based on an earlier tale from Greek mythology. A sculptor falls in love with the statue he has created, and Venus, the goddess of love, brings the sculpture in question to life for him. Maria appears to be the model for each of the characters in these paintings: Pygmalion, Venus, and the statue/woman.

I have thought about how many of my gender may have a good bit of Pygmalion in them. A man may fall in love, not with a woman as she really is, but as he has imagined her. His imaginative fantasies use her as a blank canvas or un-carved block of marble on which he can create a person who doesn’t really exist. The obvious shame of this is that the poor woman must often deal with the fallout of such false expectations, but I see as the greatest shame the fact that a man fails to experience and appreciate the many dimensions or facets that a real woman can give to a relationship. I say this as a married man whose wife of 37 years never ceases to surprise and amaze him.

Next week: another series of paintings featuring Maria.