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Case Study: Pygmalion

You’ve heard the jokes about the teachers who fall in love with their students. It’s not a new story, of course, the creator falling in love with the created. It all started with the Greek myth of Pygmalion a sculptor who fell in love with his statue.

The Musical

The Musical

In Ovid’s narrative, Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. According to Ovid, after seeing the Propoetides prostituting themselves, he was ‘not interested in women’, but his statue was so realistic that he fell in love with it. He offered the statue gifts and eventually prayed to Venus (Aphrodite). She took pity on him and brought the statue to life. They married and had a son, Paphos.

Still in the ancient world, one of the kings of Tyre (now Lebanon) was called Pygmalion of Tyre and the sculptor Pygmalion is a character in Virgil’s masterpiece the Aeneid.

In the arts, the mythical character is depicted or is alluded to frequently, as you can see from this very partial list.

Pygmalion and his idealized woman

Pygmalion and his idealized woman

1748 – Pigmalion, an opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau

1762 – Pygmalion, a melodrama (just about the first) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

1779, 1806, and 1816 – Pygmalion operas by Georg Anton Benda, Luigi Cherubini, and Gaetano Donizetti

1871 – Pygmalion and Galatea, a play by W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame)

1878 – Pygmalion and the Image Series: The Soul Attains (see detail on left or full image), oil on canvas by Edward Burne-Jones

1883 – Galatea, or Pygmalion Reversed, a musical comedy by Meyer Lutz

1883 – Pygmalion, ou La Statue de Chypre (Pygmalion, or The Cyprus Statue), a ballet with choreography by Marius Petipa

1913 – Pygmalion, a play by George Bernard Shaw

1938 – Pygmalion, a movie based on Shaw’s play

1956 – My Fair Lady, a Broadway musical (poster on upper right) by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe based on Shaw’s play

The Movie

The Movie

1964 – My Fair Lady, a movie (poster on lower right) with Rex Harrison as a language teacher and Audrey Hepburn as Galatea, in this case known as Eliza Doolittle, based on Shaw’s play

1980 – Educating Rita, a stage comedy by Willy Russell

1983 – Educating Rita film (poster on left) with Michael Caine as a literature teacher and Julie Walters as Galatea. Note the cut line on the poster: Sometimes students end up being the best teachers.

1990 – Pretty Woman, a romantic comedy film with Richard Gere as a financial trader and Julia Roberts as Galatea

1997 – Hole in My Soul, a music video by Aerosmith with Pygmalion as a mad scientist and Eva Mendes as Galatea

2007 – Lars and the Real Girl

The Teacher and his ideal woman

The Teacher and
his ideal woman

This list in the arts — TV episodes, poems, novels, paintings, sculptures, etc. — could go on and on and on. You could make a case that all the Frankenstein stories, starting with Mary Shelly’s original in 1818 (published when she was 20 years old, by the way), are a variation on the Pygmalion story.

It’s not just the arts, of course. For psychologists, the pygmalion effect describes the behavior of individuals as people expect them to behave. In extreme cases, a person with pygmalionism or agalmatophilia has an erotic attraction to statues or immobility.

In astronomy, 96189 Pygmalion is a minor planet. OK, I’ll stop.