Posh ignorance vs. best practice
Art historians and curators can be obstinately wrong and obtuse even about great masterpieces. A notorious example is Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine (c. 1490) which should really be called Lady with a Ferret, but posh ignorance prevails. The best practitioners in the field are never afraid to correct themselves, however. A good example is the subject of this blog, a significant Neo-classical painting in Te Papa’s collection, Achilles frantic for the loss of Patroclus, rejecting the consolation of Thetis (1803), by George Dawe. Its story is central to our comprehension and appreciation of the painting. It comes from Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, which was known to every literate schoolboy (and not a few schoolgirls) of that period, just as it is to many New Zealanders today, thanks to Classical Studies as taught at our high schools and universities.
Patroclus’s big mistake
The Trojan Wars are raging. The great Greek warrior Achilles – who is in a furious sulk after being dishonoured by Agamemnon – has withdrawn from combat. He has lent his armour to his beloved friend and comrade Patroclus, who is bursting to counter-attack the Trojans, who look like they are winning. Achilles has warned Patroclus not to pursue the enemy to the walls of Troy, even if things appear to go his friend’s way. They do, and Patroclus ignores Achilles, foolishly thinking that the armour renders him invincible. Big mistake: he is slain by Hector, the son of Priam, King of the Trojans. The tragic news is conveyed to Achilles by Antilochus, ‘Nestor’s son, the messenger of woe’, to quote from Alexander Pope’s famous translation of The Iliad (1715-20), which was almost certainly Dawe’s inspiration.
Writhing in agonised grief
Antilochus is the main standing figure in the painting, resplendent in his plumed helmet with a sphinx and a ram’s head, and a deep apricot chiton garment. He shields his face, but having known the news for some time, remains stoical in grief. In front of him is Achilles’s tenderly consoling mother, Thetis, who is scantily clad and looks uncannily youthful: remember you can get away with this if you have deity status! Achilles himself, writhing in agonised grief, provides the focal point of the composition. He is denuded of his armour – and just about everything else (click on image to enlarge). Finally, note how the swooning surrounding figures are overwhelmingly female: they comprise a varied cast of ‘virgin captives’ taken earlier in the war, and Nereids or sea-nymphs, attendants of Thetis. Prominent among them and to the viewer’s right are the Three Graces (who normally made their appearance in happier circumstances), while behind them we catch a glimpse of Achilles’s fleet. Let Pope tell us how Achilles took the tragic news…
‘His groaning breast’
A sudden horror shot through all the chief,
And wrapp’d his senses in the cloud of grief;
Cast on the ground, with furious hands he spread
The scorching ashes o’er his graceful head;
His purple garments, and his golden hairs,
Those he deforms with dust, and these he tears;
On the hard soil his groaning breast he threw,
And roll’d and grovell’d, as to earth he grew.
The virgin captives, with disorder’d charms,
(Won by his own, or by Patroclus’ arms,)
Rush’d from their tents with cries; and gathering round,
Beat their white breasts, and fainted on the ground:
While Nestor’s son sustains a manlier part,
And mourns the warrior with a warrior’s heart…
Dawe’s confusing title
Even though we can’t see Achilles’s ‘purple garments’ (the one immediately underneath him is elegantly draped and the wrong colour), the scene is otherwise authentic. How could we get it wrong? We can partly blame ourselves for being inadequately lettered in the Ancients, not to mention Alexander Pope. Partly, though, we can blame George Dawe himself. When Dawe, a wonderfully talented 23-year-old, exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy in London, he supplied an alternative title, The Death of Patroclus. The full one was rather too wordy, even for those times (though terse compared with another famous Neo-classical painting, Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s The Emperor Septimus Severus reproaches his son Caracalla, for wanting to assassinate him… and says to him, “If you want my death, order Papinias [Colonel of the Guards] to kill me with this sword”.) The meaning and the moment chosen would have struck Dawe and his educated public as being pretty obvious. But calling it what he did led to subsequent errors of interpretation. For a long time, including the description of the painting in Art at Te Papa (2009), the central nude figure was taken literally to mean Patroclus himself when it is his very absence that gives the painting its psychological power. I remember being bothered about this myself when I read the description. Sure, artists can take liberties with dead bodies, especially idealised Neo-classical ones, but this is literally twisting it too far. (Readers of a certain age may well remember the cult comedy film Weekend at Bernie’s , where the eponymous gangster/boss is hilariously made to look alive by two hapless underlings who do not wish to be implicated in his recent, violent death). Back to Dawe: one error leads to another. The helmetted figure, formerly thought to be Achilles, hardly needs consoling; as Pope says, Antilochus is altogether ‘manlier’ in his bearing.
Opening up the Dawe
Full credit for the correction to Dawe’s interpretation must go to Mary Kisler, Senior Curator of the Mackelvie Collection of International Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, and her admirable account in Angels & Aristocrats: Early European Art in New Zealand Public Collections (2010). I will leave you with one question. Now that we understand Dawe’s intended meaning, shouldn’t we be kinder on the painting than the account in Art at Te Papa, which claimed ‘the work is somewhat lacking in compositional cohesion’? Isn’t the whole point that Achilles’s savage grief tore cohesion to shreds? The painting also has an underlying philosophical relevance to it, notwithstanding the age-old Homeric theme. Should we blame Fate or the gods for the recent tragedy, or should we think, as Achilles does, in terms of personal responsibility?