A Very Long Engagement: Nineteenth-Century Sculpture and Its Afterlives

Sir Alfred Gilbert’s An Offering to Hymen

by Eva Fahey


The ca. 1886 sculpture, An Offering to Hymen by Sir Alfred Gilbert implies the narrative of a young girl transitioning into womanhood [Figure 1]. By focusing the viewer’s attention on the symbolic offerings the figure holds, Gilbert points to the girl’s imminent future of marriage and ultimately motherhood. The expectations of marriage set on young girls in Victorian Britain contextualize this narrative.

Similarly showing a young girl transitioning into adulthood, Edgar Degas’ The Little Dancer Age Fourteen (1881) [Figure 2] also considers what lies beyond the innocence of girlhood. Much like the figure in An Offering to Hymen, the dancer’s future is predetermined by the implied narrative and context Degas creates around her. My goal in this essay is to demonstrate that An Offering to Hymen carries a message of adolescent uncertainty that is still relevant in our times. To do this, I will first analyze the conventions and social expectations that surrounded adolescent girls during the 19th century by comparing and contrasting An Offering to Hymen with its near contemporary Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. I shall then proceed to the similarities and differences they share with contemporary Western culture.

The Offerings

Gilbert’s sculpture shows a female figure in-between youth and maturity. The adolescent girl holds out two offerings to Hymen, the god of marriage. In her right hand, the figure holds a branch of hawthorn and in her left a small statue of Anteros, the god of requited love [Figure 3]. For Gilbert, Anteros symbolized “mature reciprocal love” (Dorment 115). With these offerings, the figure approaches an implied altar as she moves toward maturity and marriage (Dorment 115). 

The figure’s downcast gaze brings immediate and focused attention to these two offerings. Gilbert’s choices all contribute to the viewer’s focus on them [Figure 4]. By moving around the sculpture and considering the relationship between the viewer and the figure, one begins to feel the intense concentration on the objects the figure holds out before her. Almost meditative, there is a steadiness in the gaze that contrasts her gesture’s overall awkward stiffness [Figure 5].

Moving around the sculpture provides unique vantage points and the viewer’s relationship to the offerings held out by the figure changes significantly [Figures 6-10]. From the front of the figure , the objects seem to be offered to the viewer. However, as you move around the sculpture, the viewer takes on different roles. From the side,, the viewer is an onlooker to an intimate moment of a figure in prayer or her moment of offering. Then, as you move behind her, her offerings disappear and only the form of her body can be seen. If the sculpture sits below the viewer, one might look down over her head and focus only on the offerings she holds. These various viewing positions all work to emphasize the importance of the girl’s future, represented in the objects she holds out to Hymen. 

Historical Context: An Offering to Hymen

In the context of Victorian Britain, this adolescent girl would soon be preparing for life as an adult woman. With this came the expectation of marriage and motherhood. At the time, women became eligible and expected to marry soon after they reached puberty as, “Marriage and motherhood were the crowning achievements of a woman’s life, her “natural destiny” and “best earthly happiness.” (Kent 80). Therefore, the statue can be interpreted as a young girl contemplating her imminent future as a wife and mother. 

Edgar Degas’ The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer

Made just a few years earlier in 1881, Edgar Degas’ The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer also shows a young female figure transitioning into adulthood. However, in contrast to Gilbert’s figure, the future that she faces is much more sinister. While the context of Gilbert’s figure points to marriage and essentially conformity to her culture’s acceptable norms, Degas creates a lower class figure who is destined to a criminal life. The figure’s physical characteristics draw from the practice of assessing character by one’s physical (especially facial) features, called physiognomy. Specifically, using the ideas from physiognomy, the figure’s shortened forehead, protruding jaw, and the flatness of her facial features [Figure 11] all point to societal decay and degeneration. As scholars have noted, the critics of the time read in the features of this figure, “clearly “printed” signs of  a “stock of evil instincts and vicious tendencies,” a congenital predisposition to bestiality. Burdened by this heredity her moral destiny seemed inevitable given her environment.” (Druick and Zegers 209). Within her historical context as a dancer, the adolescent Degas created was thus destined to become a prostitute, “Ironically, the very profession that would discipline and give physical grace to this yet unformed creature would also nourish all that was least disciplined and most unattractive in her.” (Druick and Zegers 209). 

Adolescent Uncertainty

Compared to Gilbert’s figure, The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer also depicts a girl’s future as defined by an outside force. While An Offering to Hymen references the influence of social norms, Degas’ sculpture points towards genetics as the determining factor. Yet, these seemingly very different takes on female adolescence are more related than one might think. Both artists choose to show the girls at critical ages – showing an innocence in the time of life right before the reality of adulthood.

Although they have structured the sculptures to hint towards an implied future and narrative, there is still some uncertainty harbored in the moments depicted. For the young girl in An Offering to Hymen, the responsibilities that come with adulthood and the uncertainty of with whom, when, or even if  she will advance into marriage and motherhood loom in her future. As for the girl in The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer, she is depicted at an age where it is still uncertain if she will continue down the predicted path to moral corruption in the life of a dancer. Therefore, despite the implied future that accompanies each girl, they are depicted as adolescents – yet to encounter the realities and consequences of their fate. The decision to show these girls in adolescence emphasizes uncertainty and the focus on the future in a way that showing them in adulthood would not be able to convey. In a sense, the pieces could also be thought of as moving away from specific girls and their futures. In addition to their specific narratives, they consider a crucial age where outside influences and personal growth/choice collide to determine an individual’s life. Thus, this idea of adolescent uncertainty in the face of outside influences transcends the two sculptures from their respectable time period and can reach contemporary audiences as being relative and relatable. 

Contemporary Adolescence

On the other hand, the narrative of an adolescent girl considering marriage and motherhood feels removed and distant from the conversations that surround contemporary western youth. Neither marriage nor motherhood remain the sole choice or life achievement available to the female women and girls of today. One way the transition between childhood and maturity has changed, is an earlier onset of puberty,

"A girl’s age at menarche used to be fairly close to her age at marriage; during the   latter half of the twentieth century the distance between those two experiences has widened considerably, as girls are menstruating at younger ages and many women are forming committed relationships and having children much later in life, if at all.”(Gateward 129)

This biological change has shaped the transition between youth and adulthood for women. In addition, the growing acceptance of premarital sex, growing de-stigmatization of LGBTQ relationship, the increased availability of contraceptives, and the rising attendance of higher education has changed the way we view “coming of age.” By widening the gap between adolescence and marriage, women are left with more options, time, and freedom to explore new possibilities that extend far beyond the limitations of Victorian Britain: “There are some parameters to our shared understanding of the period of contemporary West womanhood. Earlier onset of puberty, the responsibilities and opportunities of work and consumption, and sexual relationships being available at a younger age…” (Waxman and Grant 3). With this in mind, Gilbert’s focus on marriage and motherhood seems obsolete when viewed within the context of contemporary ideas.

Like in An Offering to Hymen, Degas’ The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer also takes on a different interpretation in contemporary western culture. There is no longer a stigma surrounding ballet dancers as being connected to prostitution, nor is there a cultural stereotype of dancers being lower class. In addition, the practice of physiognomy has become obsolete. Therefore, like Gilbert’s sculpture, perhaps the specific characteristics that made this sculpture so notable at the time are not the same ones that translate to a contemporary viewer. Perhaps they now translate as tender moments experienced before the slew of choices one must face in adulthood – a period of life where many opportunities are available. There is something in these in-between moments that speaks to viewers both on a level of discomfort and on a level of endearing innocence. Their vulnerability shown in unfledged bodies and told by their individual narratives allows us to peak into these last moments before adulthood begins. In this sense, although understanding each sculpture in their historical and cultural context is important and illuminating, they can also be thought of from a contemporary viewpoint.  

Concluding Thoughts

Gilbert’s sculpture remains relevant through the manifestation of the intense uncertainty that surrounds a female adolescent’s consideration of her future. In this sense, An Offering to Hymen transcends the constantly changing social norms and can reach contemporary audiences in a powerful and universal way. When thought of as a depiction of transition between girlhood and womanhood, “[t]he girl brings into play the flexibility of adolescence, often defined as an indeterminate state that reprises many of the conflicts of childhood while attempting to navigate a path to an adult maturity that is primarily represented by social conformity.” (Waxman and Grant 3). This definition of contemporary adolescence highlights the intentional uncertainty that surrounds the two girl figures and continues to reach audiences despite the specifics of their individual situations. Therefore, perhaps this sculpture speaks to audiences by tapping into an empathy or shared experience of both transition and an uncertainty of what is to come.

Overall,  Gilbert’s sculpture An Offering to Hymen can be considered from many perspectives. Whether by physically moving around the sculpture to place oneself in different relationships with the sculpture, or by thinking about it in different contexts the sculpture is frozen in the unresolved state of an individual moving towards an uncertain future. Therefore, by shifting position or context, the viewer can connect with the figure’s intense uncertainty and begin to consider the implied narrative that accompanies her. 

List of References

Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of childhood: a social history of family life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

Dorment, Richard and Bidwell, Timothy. Alfred Gilbert, Sculptor and Goldsmith. London: Royal Academy of Arts, in Association with Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.

Druick, Douglas W. and Zegers, Peter. "Scientific Realism: 1873-1881," Degas (Boggs, Druick, , Loyrette, Tinterow, eds.). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988, pp.197-211.

Gateward, Frances K. and Pomerance, Murray. Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: Cinemas of Girlhood. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002.

Kent, Susan Kingsley. Sex and Suffrage in Britain, 1860-1914. Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 80-113.

Waxman, Lori and Grant, Catherine. Girls! Girls! Girls! in Contemporary Art. Bristol, GB: Intellect, 2011.

This page has paths:

This page references: