A genial, extrovert, giant of a man, popular in artistic and social circles, Val Prinsep belonged to a leading Anglo-Indian family that had already produced several talented amateur artists. He was born in Calcutta on St Valentine's Day 1838; his father, Thoby Prinsep, was a distinguished Indian civil servant, and his mother, the redoubtable Sara, was one of the celebrated Pattle sisters, who also included Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer, and Virginia, Countess Somers, one of the great beauties of the day. The Prinseps returned to England in 1843, and in 1851 took a lease on Little Holland House in Kensington. There for nearly twenty-five years Sara presided over a salon frequented by celebrities in the worlds of art, literature, politics and science.
Val received his earliest art education from G.F. Watts, who lived in the house as its genius-in-residence. By 1857 he had fallen under the spell of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, two of his mother's 'lions', and was helping them to paint murals illustrating the Morte d'Arthur in the Oxford Union. He then went on to study under Charles Gleyre in Paris, where he encountered Whistler, Poynter, George du Maurier and other members of the so-called 'Paris Gang'. He appears as Taffy in Trilby, du Maurier's romanticised account of the vie de bohème, published in 1894. In the 1860s Prinsep came under the influence of Frederic Leighton, his neighbour in the colony of artists that was rapidly establishing itself to the south-west of Holland Park, and in 1879 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, of which Leighton had become President the previous year. This was probably in recognition of his labours on an enormous canvas depicting the durbar held by Lord Lytton at Delhi in 1877 to proclaim Queen Victoria Empress of India; the picture was exhibited at the R.A. in 1880 and is now in St James's Palace.
Given the varied influences to which Prinsep was exposed in early life, it is not surprising that this work is eclectic. In the late 1850s he toyed with the quaint medievalism currently in vogue in Rossetti's circle. By the early 1860s he was working in the 'Venetian' idiom that was being explored by so many of the Pre-Raphaelites and their contemporaries. Later still he was to opt for a conventional academic mode, with occasional forays into the classicism of his mentor Leighton.
The present picture was exhibited at the R.A. in 1889, when Prinsep was fifty-one; he was still an Associate, not graduating to full membership until 1894. The picture looks back to his Parisian training thirty years earlier, and is essentially a life study of a shapely nude set against a naturalistic background and given an appropriate literary title. There can be little doubt that he conceived the image on seeing a model strike a fetching (and artistically quite challenging) pose in the studio. Background and title were then added to lend it context and respectability, but the erotic impulse from which it sprang was never in doubt and remains the true subject.
It says much about the fundamental irrelevance of the title that it has no real equivalent in Genesis. Presumably Prinsep intended to suggest, in the words of the Art Journal, 'the first gaze of our mother upon the Garden of Eden', but there is no hint here, as there is in Michelangelo's account on the Sistine ceiling, that Eve was created from a rib of Adam. If she experiences any 'awakening' in Eden, it is when, tempted by the serpent, she eats the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and, as the Bible puts it, her 'eyes were opened'. But this is obviously not the subject of Prinsep's painting.
Nor were contemporary commentators under any illusions about Prinsep's intentions. For the art critic on the Times, the picture was 'a very carefully modelled nude study which (the artist) calls '"The First Awakening of Eve",' while F.G. Stephens, reviewing the exhibition in the Athenaeum, called it 'a graceful and spirited nudity in a sunny landscape.' This was in a preliminary round-up of the highlights on offer. A fortnight later, discussing Prinsep's contributions at greater length, Prinsep told his readers that he greatly preferred the picture to another work the artist was showing that year, Carmen, which remained a 'not particularly taking subject' for all its 'excellently drawn features' and 'good execution'. 'Of a much higher strain than this is the finely designed and thoroughly well-painted nudity called The First Awakening of Eve, a nearly life-size figure seated in sunlight near a bank of ruddy earth and overhanging foliage.'
Precisely because these critics saw the picture for what it was, they could afford to sidestep the issue of how successfully Prinsep had rendered the Genesis story. However, for the Art Journal, which had accepted the narrative gloss at its face value, this was a problem. Its critic wondered why the artist, with his 'knowledge of Eastern climes', could not 'have given us a fairer idea of Paradise than these tangled wild flowers and distorted tree roots.' The writer was probably thinking of Prinsep's book Imperial India: An Artist's Journals (1879), in which he had described his extensive travels in the subcontinent two years earlier, painting maharajahs who had attended the Delhi durbar that he had been commissioned to record. Prinsep took the opportunity to paint many Indian landscapes (two were sold in these Rooms on 15 June 1990, lots 140 and 141), but there is certainly no echo of these in The First Awakening of Eve. If anything, the model seems to be posing on a piece of uncultivated ground at the bottom of his garden in Holland Park Road.
At the R.A. the picture was hung in Gallery III, the great central exhibition space, where it jostled with major works by other leading artists. The room also contained Leighton's Greek Girls playing at Ball (Dick Institute, Kilmarnock), Orchardson's The Young Duke (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), Millais' The Old Garden (Lloyd Webber Collection), Fildes' An Al-Fresco Toilette (Port Sunlight) and Waterhouse's first Ophelia (Lloyd Webber Collection), not to mention examples of Watts, Poynter, Alma-Tadema, Herkomer, Yeames, Goodall, Thomas Sidney Cooper, Henry Moore, Marcus Stone, J.C. Hook, G.D. Leslie and many others. It would be hard to find a better illustration of the late Victorian Royal Academy in its most lush and supremely self-confident heyday.