Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, Phaedra and Hippolytus, 1802
18 x 13 in.
Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774-1833) was a French painter of the Neoclassical style. He won a number of prizes at the French Salon and traveled to Rome to further his studies. Most of his works adhere to the tradition of history painting and feature subjects from Classical mythology or history. His most celebrated piece is The Return of Marcus Sextus, which depicts a man who has returned home from exile to find his wife dead, his daughter clinging to his leg; the piece evokes the horrors of the French Revolution and was very powerful at the time of exhibition in 1799. Among his other subjects are Sappho and Aeneas at the court of Dido. Guérin also painted contemporary portraits.
The story of Hippolytus and Phaedra is a bit complicated so bear with me. Hippolytus was the son of Theseus and his first wife, the Amazon queen Hippolyta. Hippolytus was entirely devoted to Artemis to the point that he neglected the other gods and explicitly renounced Aphrodite, taking a vow of chastity. This enraged Aphrodite, and she enflamed Theseus's second wife, Phaedra, with a burning passion for Hippolytus. When he refused her, the crazed Phaedra accused Hippolytus of rape and eventually killed herself. Theseus banished Hippolytus and cursed him, beseeching his father Poseidon to wreak justice upon the young man. As he rides away from the city in his chariot, a bull comes from the sea and kills Hippolytus. Theseus only realizes his mistake once it is too late.
Guérin's rendering of the story successfully captures the drama and darkness at work here. All the figures are in shadow and entirely unable to look each other in the eye. The entire scene is shrouded in shadows and sadness. Hippolytus is depicted like Artemis. He bears all her iconography, holding a bow with hunting dogs in tow. His body and face are even somewhat androgynous. Hippolytus stands proud, even haughty. He refuses to dignify Phaedra's claims and even holds up a hand, as though silencing his father (who of course is also the king). Phaedra looks away from the main action; she appears uncertain and somewhat ashamed. She may be aware of the wrongness of her action, but is unable behave differently, compelled by Aphrodite. Theseus, meanwhile, sits stone faced, one arm draped protectively around Phaedra, his other hand clenched in an angry fist toward his son. Phaedra's maid lurks in the background, a witness to these horrors. There is much left unsaid in this painting, for it is not a moment of action, but one of silence and anger. The pride of these two men is the cause of great tragedy, while Phaedra is a victim and pawn of this divine game. Guérin masterfully communicates all of these complexities and his painting successfully evokes the tragic character of this story.