OIL PAINTING: Diadumene, 1884
This small painting was shown al the Royal Academy in 1884 and possibly also at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1445, the year Poynter exhibited a large version of the subject at the Academy which became the focus of a controversy which raged around the suitability of the nude as a subject for public exhibition. In a letter to The Times (May 1444), Poynter justified his decision to represent an anonymous figure (diadumene simply means "fillet-binder" in Greek) from antiquity on the grounds that he was presenting an archaeological reconstruction of a Roman bathing custom. In the late nineteenth century the restoration of lost or damaged statues was regarded as a legitimate aim for artists, offering opportunities for both scholarly intervention and artistic interpretation: while the sculptor John Bell published his attempted restoration of famous works such as the Venus of Melos and Venus of Cnidos, the painters Alrma-Tadema, Moore and Poynter introduced archaeological methodologies into the field of academic composition.
The image of Diadumene also engages visually with the debates surrounding the status of the Venus Esquilina. Following its discovery there was considerable disagreement as to whether this was a copy of the original Greek Venus of Scopas or a Roman portrait statue. In his letter to The Times Poynter contended that the attitude of the recently unearthed figure was too unselfconscious for a Venus, but saw the simple and innocent motive as worthy of representation in painting as a genre subject. Furthermore, Poynter drew a firm distinction between his archaeologically based nude and the baigneuses of modern French painters, which for the British were beyond the pale of respectability. Associations made at the time between the supposed degeneracy of the Hellenistic and Roman periods and modern French morals may explain why Poynter sought to chasten his figure by invoking the classical Greek prototype of Polyclitus' male Diadumenos, of which there were two copies in the British Museum.