Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 73 x 60 cm
Signed: Stamped on the reverse of the stretcher with the studio stamp
The estate of the artist; Private collection, France; Sotheby’s Olympia, 2003; Private collection, United Kingdom
Marcel-Béronneau’s fascination with powerful and determined women is exemplified here in his portrayal of the Nymph Ondine, or Undine, a nymph or water goddess in a French folk story written by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and published in 1811. This was based in turn on a German folk tale and has been made into five operas (two by Dvorjak and Tchaikovsky) three ballets (Undine), several poems and novellas as well as two films including one by Andy Warhol (The Loves of Ondine, 1968).
Ondine was breathtakingly beautiful and possessed of a streak of independence, a true ‘free spirit’. Like all nymphs and mermaids, she was wary of any relationship with men, as a nymph who falls in love with a man and bears his child would age like a mortal woman, losing her eternal youthfulness and everlasting life.
Nonetheless, when Ondine saw the handsome young Palemon she was smitten and began to watch for him on his daily walks. When Palemon noticed her, he was taken by her incredible beauty and came back frequently to try to get a glimpse of her again. Eventually they fell in love, he broke his engagement with the young noblewoman Berta and convinced Ondine to marry him. When they exchanged their wedding oaths, Palemon promised that “My every waking breath shall be my pledge of love and faithfulness to you.”
The following year Ondine gave birth to their son. From that moment on, her beauty began to fade, her body suddenly susceptible to the effects of age. As her youthful attractiveness gave way to a more mature beauty, Palemon’s eye began to wander to the younger women he met at court. One fateful day Ondine was out walking on their estate when she heard the sound of Palemon’s familiar snoring. Planning to take him back home so he could finish his nap, the amused Ondine entered the stables to wake him.
The scene she encountered filled her with great sorrow. Discarded garments littered the floor and her beloved Palemon lay sleeping in the haystack, his arms wrapped around his former fianceé Berta. Having sacrificed her immortality for this man, she was filled with anger and regret. Kicking her sleeping husband, she woke him and uttered her curse. “You pledged faithfulness to me with your every waking breath and I accepted that pledge. So be it. For as long as you are awake, you shall breathe. But should you ever fall into sleep, that breath will desert you.” Ondine still retained some of her magic . . . enough to make the curse come true. And so it was. Palemon would never sleep again