Pygmalion is a sculptor who is disgusted by the behavior of local women, who are frivolous, shallow, and immoral. His decision to live a life of celibacy instead of choosing one of these women shows his level of disgust. Pygmalion was fed up. What he desired in a partner could not be found in a local woman and he would not settle for less. He can not give up his dream.
Burne-Jones introduces us to Pygmalion in the first painting, Pygmalion and Galatea I: The Heart Desires. He stands in contemplation. His back turned to the living women in the doorway. He’s not looking at the women depicted in statue either (the statues are the three graces, by the way). But look at the floor. We can see, reflected, an array of body parts…posterior, thighs, etc. Pygmalion does not look at these. He ignores the living women, the statues of women, the reflection of femininity. Instead, we can assume that he is thinking of the perfect woman that exists only in Pygmalion’s head, the woman that he shall soon sculpt.
In the second picture of the series (Pygmalion and Galatea II: The Hand Refrains), we see Pygmalion has been busy at work. In the doorway, we can still see local women in the distance, the real, flesh and blood women that Pygmalion has disdained. He has created the woman of his dreams, his perfect woman. He admires her now, all the hard work is done. We can see his tools at the base of the statue. He has created her and he loves what he has created.
According to Metamorphoses, Pygmalion prays to the goddess Aphrodite, hoping she will bless him with a wife that will be just as wonderful and perfect as his statue. This was a bold step for the sculptor, as he had essentially shunned Aphrodite in the past. So we see in the third painting of the series (Pygmalion and Galatea III: The Godhead Fires) that Aphrodite has visited Pygmalion’s statue. Their arms entwined, we now see the presence of doves and flowers that were never present in the studio before. The goddess has brought life into the studio, and to Galatea (Pygmalion’s creation).
In the final picture (Pygmalion and Galatea IV: The Soul Attains) Pygmalion discovers that his statue has come to life. His prayers to Aphrodite have been heard and granted. He kneels at her feet, apparently grateful that his ultimate dream has come true.
And who was the model for Pygmalion’s statue, the “dream woman”? Maria Zambaco, with whom Burne-Jones had quite a famous affair. Interestingly, Zambaco herself was a sculptor. You can see a study that Burne-Jones sketched of Maria at the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery website. This entire series of Pygmalion paintings was commissioned by Euphrosyne Cassavetti, Maria Zambaco’s mother.
Notice that with the titles of the paintings, Burne-Jones has created a poem:
The heart desires The hand refrains The godhead fires The soul attains.
Victorian Web Article: Burne-Jones’s Departure from Ovid in the Pygmalion Series