The Girl and Her Vessel: A Psycho-Artistic Examination

(Last Updated On: April 4, 2017)

While I am not a subscriber to the Freudian philosophy in full, I do find it fascinating and worth looking into from time to time. What most interests me is what I would call proto-Freudianism, a sort of loose and unfocused examination of concepts like the symbolic phallus and vagina in art. The phallus in artistic imagery is well-documented; less so the vagina. When the vagina has been represented symbolically, it generally manifests in two forms: the flower and the vessel. In my post Deflowered, I addressed the latter in a particular context, namely the shattered or broken vessel as it represented the loss of virginity. Here we will examine the same symbol in its purer form, before it is broken. Thus, in Freudian terms we are looking at girls who are still sexually innocent. The symbolism is rarely conscious on the part of artists, but for a Freudian that hardly matters. Of particular concern to us are pieces from the heyday of Freudianism (late 19th to mid 20th century), when artists were more likely to be aware of the sexual symbolism in their work and could choose either to accentuate it or downplay it.

Our first couple of pieces are a pair of objets d’art from unknown artists, Niña con cántaro and Niña llevando un cántaro (Girl with Pitcher and Girl Carrying a Pitcher respectively). In the first, one of the girl’s sleeves has fallen off her shoulder, thus baring one of her nipples. As Journey Darkmoon pointed out in his Chauncey Bradley Ives post, the revelation of the little girl’s nipple symbolizes her innocence, as she is unaware of the deeper connotation of such an act. This, coupled with the vessel at her feet, symbolizes feminine innocence. In the second example, the girl is nude altogether (save for a couple of bows in her hair), but again her innocence is clear.

Artist Unknown – Niña con cántaro (ca. 1920)

Artist Unknown – Niña llevando un cántaro (1)

Artist Unknown – Niña llevando un cántaro (2)

The trend continues with this set from Lladró. The famous porcelain company’s history of producing charming child pieces is unrivaled.

Lladró – Little Peasant Girl (Blue, Yellow & Pink Variants)

A common theme running through all of these pieces is nudity, partial nudity or, as in the case of Bessie Potter Vonnoh‘s Garden Figure, an ephemeral sort of drapery. Again, this is all meant to reinforce the fact that these are innocent young girls. The vessels they bear are unbroken for a reason. Vonnoh’s little vessel bearer was later used as part of the Frances Hodgson Burnett Memorial Fountain.

Bessie Potter Vonnoh – Garden Figure; ‘Garden Figure’ Maquette

Bessie Potter Vonnoh – Frances Hodgson Burnett Memorial Fountain

Art Deco and other modern artists tended to focus on early adolescent models rather than prepubescent ones, such as this lighter/ashtray combo piece, Juan Cristobal‘s Niña con cántaro and Joseph Bernard‘s The Water Bearer.

Artist Unknown – Nude Girl with New Yorker Lighter and Ashtray (1929)

Juan Cristobal – Niña con cántaro (1926)

Joseph Bernard – The Water Bearer (1912)

One of my absolute favorite pieces in this vein is Peruvian sculptor Juan José Paredes Antezana’s Niña A. It’s difficult to pin down the date here but the style seems fairly modern.

Juan José Paredes Antezana – Niña A

Here are two rare examples in which our young water carriers are fully clothed. They are by Ramon Martí Alsina and Ricardo de Madrazo y Garreta respectively.

Ramon Martí Alsina – Niña con cántaro

Ricardo de Madrazo y Garreta – Regreso de la fuente (1878)

V. Marseille’s topless adolescent water bearer is a fine modern exemplar of the trend.

V. Marseille – Girl with Water Jug

Our sole photographic entry in this subject is a piece by Rudolf Lehnert and Ernst Landrock. Judging by the iconography on her vessel, this little girl appears to be Arabic or North African, possibly Egyptian. Lehnert & Landrock really deserve a dedicated post of their own on Pigtails. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable on the pair will do us the honor.

Lehnert & Landrock – (Title Unknown)

This sculpture of a boy and girl retrieving water, which I’ve posted here before, is one of the most blatantly Freudian pieces I’ve ever come across. Here we have two vessels, the water jug, which has a spigot and is held up by the young boy (one of the rare times when the vessel takes on a masculine aspect rather than a feminine one), and the cup in the little girl’s hand. Take note of the almost wanton look on the thirsty girl’s face as she raises her cup to be filled by the boy. Note too how uncomfortably close her cup is to the boy’s genitalia. The boy also sits above the girl, reflecting his sexual dominance of her. Clearly the artist who created this piece (Edme Marie Cadoux) did so with at least some degree of awareness of all these cues. That this would all be accidental seems rather unlikely to me.

Edme Marie Cadoux – At the Fountain (1887)

Otherwise, even when the vessel is borne by a male, it still retains its feminine attributes, which subtly suggests homosexuality. The context is certainly relevant in this piece by Neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. In this image we see the goddess Hebe, formerly the cup bearer of the gods, passing her serving vessels on to Ganymede, the boy who replaced her in this duty, while Zeus in his eagle form looks on. If you know your Greek myths, then you are well aware that young Ganymede was also one of Zeus’s lovers.

Bertel Thorvaldsen – Hebe and Ganymede

Speaking of Ganymede, he was the original representative for the zodiac sign Aquarius. Over time a girl or young woman tended to replace Zeus’s catamite in artistic representations of the sign for perhaps obvious reasons. Eduard Steinbrück‘s Die Nymphe der Düssel could’ve been the prototype for modern images of Aquarius. (See also the Deflowered post linked above for symbolism surrounding the adolescent girl dipping her toe into the water.)

Eduard Steinbrück – Die Nymphe der Düssel

Finally, we have a pair of candlesticks, a boy and a girl, by Edward Francis McCartan. Again, even the boy is rather feminized, all the more so for holding an amphora. These are certainly eroticized portrayals of youth, which McCartan was no stranger to.

Edward Francis McCartan – Children Holding Amphorae (early 20th cent.)(1)

Edward Francis McCartan – Children Holding Amphorae (early 20th cent.)(2)

Edward Francis McCartan – Children Holding Amphorae (early 20th cent.)(3)

Edward Francis McCartan – Girl Holding Amphora (early 20th cent.)(1)

Edward Francis McCartan – Girl Holding Amphora (early 20th cent.)(2)

6 thoughts on “The Girl and Her Vessel: A Psycho-Artistic Examination

    • Oh, that’s a good one! A Freudian might say she uses her vessel to seduce and manipulate Mowgli into doing her bidding. He even carries her vessel for her. That’s . . . pretty telling. 🙂

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