Draper's flagrantly romantic image seeks to personify the moment when day finally extinguishes the more ephemeral dawn. He envisages Day as an Apollonian deity whose embrace constitutes, paradoxically, both the rescue and defeat of the Dawnstar. The Dawnstar or plieade (a Greek personification of a star) is portrayed as a pale maiden, who is about to slide into oblivion; Day's embrace thereby symbolises a coherent and triumphant transferal of power. In a neat reworking of the poetic conceits we associate with earthly passion, Draper described the Dawnstar's fate: 'To faint in the light of the sun she loves To faint in his light and to die'.
This is a smaller version of Draper's 1906 Royal Academy exhibit (purchased by the political industrialist Baronet Sir Robert Ropner, and now in a private collection). The artist wrote in a letter to the Academy that 'this is a rendering of the Nature-myth wherein the Dawn is absorbed and overwhelmed by the light of Day'. In subject and treatment the picture is representative of Draper's work at this time. His interpretations of myth often possess a baroque splendour, most famously evinced in The Lament for Icarus (1898, Tate Gallery). He often celebrated the forces of nature by portraying gods who personified them or took on their attributes. The Gates of Dawn (1900), for example, shows Dawn triumphant; Sea Melodies shows water nymphs laden with the gems of the sea.
This is typical of Draper's preparatory oil sketches, being identical in detail to the finished piece, but fresher in treatment. Fourteen figure drawings for the picture are known, and an inferior oil study is in a private collection in Suffolk. Draper's sketches proved commercially viable even during his lifetime; he exhibited his oil sketch for The Lament at the Society of Oil Painters.
The picture has an intriguing history, as the composition was devised for another subject, and one which features a woman overpowering as subordinate male. Draper had originally planned to depict The Meads of Asphodel, in which a Wagnerian nymph traps the fisherman she desires. However the letter-heading for a Deutsch bank inspired him to alter his subject to Aurora and Tithonus. The tale of Dawn and her mortal beloved was rejected when Draper discovered that his fellow Academician George Spencer Watson was working on this very subject.
The artist's favourite model, Ethel Maud Warwick, posed for the Dawn star. She also sat for John William Godward and Phillip Wilson Steer. The swarthy Italian Fillipe Tallio sat for Apollo, and Draper adapted his stance from the mariner's in The Sea Maiden, painted in 1894.
It is interesting to compare the pose to Watts' Orpheus series (1860s) wherein the figure of Eurydice plunges away from Orpheus, who grasps her collapsing form around the waist. The contraposto is comparable, as is the textural dichotomy between the limpid female and muscular male. The recognised source for Draper's composition, however, is Leighton's Helios and Rhodos (now destroyed). Draper made a pencil copy from his mentor's work and the composition is very like.
This is one of 16 sketches purchased by John Hall, from Draper's widow Ida, shortly after the artist's death. Hall was a friend of the family and a keen collector of Draper's work.