Great Works: Henriette de Verninac (1799) Jacques-Louis David

Louvre, Paris

Statuary and sex are often linked. The story of Pygmalion is well known. A sculptor Pygmalion carves a woman in ivory so beautiful he cannot resist it. It? Her? He touches it, strokes it, kisses it, murmurs lovingly in its ear, kits it out with gowns and jewels, lays it down on a bed. (This is the version of the story given by the Roman poet, Ovid, in his long poem, Metamorphoses.) Finally, Pygmalion prays to Venus on her feast day, in her temple, begging that his statue should be his bride.

He goes home, and kisses it where it lies, "and she seemed warm;/ again he kissed her, and with marvelling touch/ caressed her breast; beneath his touch the flesh/ grew soft, its ivory hardness vanishing,/ and yielded to his hands..." (In A D Melville's translation.) It's not just that Pygmalion wants a living partner, rather than an artificial one. The process of coming to life, the transformation of ivory into flesh, is itself compared to sexual arousal and response.

This is a story about the love of statues where a statue comes alive. There is another where the statue stays stone. The Roman historian Pliny tells it. It's the story of the statue of Venus in the town of Cnidos, the masterwork of the sculptor Praxiteles. A young man, not the sculptor, became infatuated with this figure with the famous half-smile on its face. One night he broke into its sanctuary, and "embraced it tightly in his arms, warming the cold marble with his burning kisses, contaminating it with his lust, so that the stains ever after remained, as a monument to his impiety."

He didn't have Pygmalion's luck. But then, did he have Pygmalion's desires? He might have been seeking an inanimate partner. The stone of the Venus statue may have been part of what infatuated him. People who buy inflatable dolls, after all, aren't necessarily people who can do no better. They may be people who prefer it.

Any sexual arousal may involve, not only vitality, but inertia, passivity, objectification, playing thing. Even reading Ovid, with its happy ending, you may wonder at what point Pygmalion is really most excited. When the statue comes alive? Or when it doesn't? "With many a touch he tries it – is it flesh/ or ivory? Not ivory still, he's sure./ Kisses he gives and thinks they are received;/ he speaks to it, caresses it, believes/ the firm new flesh beneath his fingers yields..."

Neo-classicism understands this sexiness of statues, this statueness of sex. No painting understands it better than this portrait by Jacques-Louis David. The sitter, aged 17, is Henriette de Verninac, née Delacroix. (Her brother was the painter Eugène Delacroix, then aged one.) The date is the last year of the Directory period. Mme Verninac wears Directory fashion, classical costume, a chemise gown with a high waist and a low neck. She has natural hair, no jewels, a simple yellow wrap. Her setting is simple too, a blank background wall, a plainly tiled floor. A simple style – implying simple virtue?

David casts his young sitter as a Roman statue – or it might be better to say a Roman doll. Her flesh is soft, smoothly pneumatic; only that smoothness gives her any suggestion of stone-ness. But as she sits there, her body isn't in self-command. There is something hypnotised in that face turned face-on and that head that stands bolt upright. Her arms, meanwhile, are droopy, not articulating themselves but laid upon her chair and her lap.

Her wrap is draped around her as if around a mannequin. Her pose is not like the pose of an active human, it's the pose of a marionette. The head is held straight up – the point from which the body of a marionette is hung. The right hand floats like a marionette hand. You could draw the puppet strings on it, and the figure would work perfectly. A human body is grounded on its feet. A marionette's feet are nothing. Mme Verninac is footless, as she vanishes off the bottom.

Altogether, this woman is a richly passive object: statuesque, doll-like, soft, stiff, touchable, in various ways desirable. Don't call it necrophilia. Call it Roman Love.

About the artist

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was the greatest force in late 18th-century neo-classical art. His painting 'The Oath of the Horatii' introduced a new artistic language a combined frieze-like clarity, geometrical design, moral severity, pent violence. His dedication to stern Roman republican virtue chimed with the ideals of the French Revolution, and he was for a time its commissar for art, and his image of 'The Death of Marat' is the Revolution's immortal icon. Narrowly escaping execution in the crisis of Thermidor, he lay low, and then emerged as the Emperor Napoleon's chief protagandist. After Waterloo he went into exile in Brussels.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders