OIL PAINTING: Cadmus and Harmonia, 1877
Pickering painted Cadmus and Harmonia upon her return to London, ten years before her marriage to the ceramicist William De Morgan, when she was beginning to establish herself as an independent woman. The picture reveals a precocious interest in Italian Renaissance culture: the figure of Harmonia adapted from Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, the landscape reminiscent of the landscapes seen in quattrocento painting, while the subject itself is based on an obscure story from Ovid's Metamorphoses, an important pretext for the nude in the Renaissance. Pickering shows Cadmus, transformed into a serpent while recalling a past exploit, desperately trying to communicate with his wife Harmonia. The painting was exhibited accompanied by the following lines from Ovid: "With lambent tongue he kissed her patient face, | Crept in her bosom as his dwelling place, | Entwined her neck, and shared the loved embrace." Anxious not to lose her husband, Harmonia was also turned into a snake and the couple remained together as benign creatures remembering their former status. Ironically the painting entered the collection of the Conservative MP Sir Charles Dilke, whose lack of marital fidelity was well publicized. Cadmus and Harmonia was exhibited in the same year that Leighton's An Athlete Wrestling with a Python was shown at the Academy. From this point onwards the interaction of reptilian and human flesh was to become a popular motif in sensational nude subjects, and was used either to represent the limits of physical endurance or, as was the case here, to open up new psycho-sexual perspectives on the body.