A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Water in Art
Professor Chris Witcombe


Water can also bring change in the form of physical transformation or metamorphosis. An example of water being used to transform is the Greek mythological story, told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, of the hunter goddess Artemis and the mortal hunter Actaeon. Following a day of hunting, Actaeon and his companions, decide the spend the night in the forest. While everyone else is resting, Actaeon explores the woods and accidentally happens upon Artemis who is bathing in a pool with her nymphs. Outraged at being seen naked by a mortal man, the virgin goddess splashes Actaeon with water from the pool which causes him to metamorphose into a stag. He is then attacked and torn apart by his own hunting dogs. In this instance, water brought about a physical transformation.

(image source: Caserta)
Luigi Vanvitelli
Diana and Actaeon, 1752-74

Artemis (Diana), of course, had a special power over water. As the goddess of the moon, she ruled the tides. In this respect, she can also be associated with the cyclical pattern of menstruation, and thereby forming another link between women and water. In addition, through her association with water, she also personified "the unconscious depths of the human mind," and "unfathomable mystery." And like water, women are also the source from which all life flows.

(image source: Telemuseum)
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
La Source, 1856


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College