Death of a Centaur

WAG 1996.24


Arthur Lemon was born on the Isle of Mann in 1850. He grew up in Rome before living as a cowboy in California for ten years. He later returned to Europe and studied art in Paris. He lived between Italy and England for the rest of his life. Lemon exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, London and was particularly known for his views of the Italian countryside and daily life. The British artist Henry Scott Tuke was good friends with Lemon. The pair lived together in Florence for a short time in the early 1880s. Both artists were influenced by Impressionist ideas about art. Lemon’s preference for painting ‘en plain air’ (outdoors) influenced Tuke to do the same. The pair spent their time in Florence sketching male nudes in the Italian sunshine. Lemon’s painting ‘The Sunbather’ (in the collection of Gregynog Hall, near Powys) is a good example of this work. Both Tuke and Lemon admired the beauty of the adolescent male form and celebrated it in their paintings. Their work was noteworthy because their nudes were often placed in a contemporary setting. Pictures and sculptures of Ancient Greek gods and mythological figures had historically provided artists with the opportunity to explore the male nude without upsetting public decency. Lemon and Tuke instead made the eroticised male nude their sole subject. Some classical figures and stories were particularly relevant as covert subjects for the exploration of homosexual desire. Centaurs were frequently presented in Ancient Greek and contemporary culture as highly sexed figures. They are a symbolic combination of the male human torso and the four legs of the horse, a mixture of human rationality and animal instinct. They are typically presented giving into their animal urges; drinking to excess, behaving aggressively and engaging in promiscuous sexual activity. Centaurs were neither animals nor humans and could ignore the strict moral expectations of society accordingly, forming their own community. Their sexual freedom must have been alluring to Lemon and others stifled by Victorian morality.