A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

by Michael Peverett

 

The Judgement of Paris

 

Oil on oak, 144.8 x 193.7 cm. National Gallery, London (NG 194). Painted probably 1632-1635.

 

 

Rubens painted this subject several times (for details of some other paintings of The Judgement of Paris, see note 1). The Madrid painting is later but this is the one in which Rubens is most engaged with every aspect of the tale.

 

Details of the commission are unknown but the painting seems to have gone to France (where it influenced Watteau and Boucher). It may have been in Cardinal Richelieu’s collection, and its message would have been oddly appropriate to a diplomat who was at the time quietly fomenting the brutal war in Germany.

 

It’s supposed that painters enjoyed the opportunity of painting three female nudes in different postures or from different sides and that was clearly an important aspect of Rubens’ compositions; in this one you can envisage the three nudes from left to right as successively rotated views of a single figure. In ancient Greek representations the goddesses are shown with their clothes on. Euripides' Andromache (c. 425 BCE) is more ambiguous: "When they came to the wooded dell they bathed their radiant bodies in the waters of a mountain spring and approached the son of Priam..."  Anyway, at some point in the Hellenic era the nudity of the goddesses became an important element in the story. Thus, in Ovid’s Heroides V Oenone talks about Paris’ unlucky judgement and refers to  naked Minerva (more pleasing when she bears arms)”.

 

You can sample the developed version of the tale in Lucian of Samosata’s entertainingly flippant dialogue The Judgement of the Goddesses (also known as Dialogues of the Gods XX, but apparently an independent work). Lucian (c.120-c.200CE) was a Syrian Greek. Samosata is modern Samsat in SE Turkey, and Lucian’s mother-tongue was probably Aramaic, but he relocated to Athens and his prolific works are written in Greek. In this account Paris is meant to award the apple to the goddess who is the  fairest”; Zeus (with whom the dialogue begins) claims that he’s setting it up as an impartial beauty contest. The dialogue continues with the journey to Ida (much witty chatter between the goddesses and Hermes). Paris, when the proposal is outlined to him, is actually too overwhelmed by the goddesses’ beauty to choose between them, and is also fully aware of the hazards of seeming to show any preference.  Eventually (somewhat prompted by Hermes) he agrees to see them naked – Hermes himself decorously turns his back. This still doesn’t help Paris to make up his mind, so he then asks to see them one by one. Hera is first, and she offers to make him lord of all Asia. Paris says he won’t be swayed by rewards. He also rebuffs Athena when she offers to make him a perpetual victor in battles. Finally Aphrodite comes before him and makes the offer of Helen that does spark Paris’ interest; indeed, he claims to be already in love with her mere account of Helen. Paris awards Aphrodite the apple and the dialogue abruptly ends.

 

It will be seen that in several details Rubens, like other Renaissance painters, does not follow Lucian. In the painting Hermes does not turn away and the goddesses are seen all at once when the apple is awarded. The narrative is collapsed into a single moment and the emphasis is now on the beauty and the seductive ways of the three goddesses, not on the offer of rewards which was pivotal to the original story but could not be painted. Rubens at first set out to show the earlier moment in the story when Hermes orders the goddesses to undress; he later decided to show Paris awarding the apple instead (contrast the 1639 painting – see below). This is not such a drastic change as you might imagine, since Rubens’ art (in fact European painting ever since its inception) had always tended to compress narrative time into a single view. As you look at this painting you can wonder, for example, if Hera is frozen in the act of removing her robe or whether she is angrily hitching it up. The picture is simultaneously dramatic and still, and the key element that shuttles us between these views is Hermes’ contemplative gaze (approximately in the direction of Cupid) – a contemplative gaze that takes in the whole scene without registering a definite response. This Hermes has a countryman’s look, like someone at an auction who isn’t bidding and who takes time out to contemplate the wider scene, to savour beauty, to enjoy drama in repose. 

 

The same double effect can be seen in the setting. The Fury, Alecto, is magnificently sinister (so is the Gorgon in Athena’s shield) and the sky looks stormy but down at ground level we see a calm pastoral landscape in which the sheep and Paris’ dog are contentedly at rest.

 

*

 

The eye moves around the painting. Right in the centre, and directly beneath the eruption of Alecto, is Hera, in so many ways the dominant figure. Rubens temporarily persuades us that Troy’s downfall is directly the result of Hera’s enmity, and it takes an effort to recall that it is really Aphrodite’s gift that causes all the trouble – what Paris accepts, not what he rejects. The fact that we can’t see the expression on Hera’s face makes her all the more powerful. And the pose is beautiful.

 

One account I’ve read makes much of Athena being (unlike the other two goddesses) a virgin and not a matron. It certainly looks in this painting as if Rubens makes a distinction, but he doesn’t in his other treatments. Athena is graceful and seems to express a less personal sense of affront than Hera’s. She enacts (as a dancer enacts) Paris’ departure from the ways of wisdom and victory.   

 

Aphrodite, her blonde beauty highlighted by the background of a sumptuous black robe, is making a winsome little gesture of “Is it really for me?” But Aphrodite is destructive too: we register an eloquent pattern of three heads in right profile: Aphrodite, Alecto and Hera’s aggressive peacock.

 

Rubens manages to imply that (since this is Mount Ida) we are on a kind of summit. In the background we see a gentle ridge that slopes away to both left and right.

 

*

 

The potential of the subject to tip over from epic narrative into titillating flippancy was apparent in Lucian’s dialogue. If you glance quickly through the pictures in Appendix 1 you’ll notice how the more recent renderings always involve an element of sarcasm. It’s a subject that naturally focusses a good deal of feminist discourse about the female nude in paintings by male artists for male clients. It is obviously not enough to point out that the man Paris though formally a judge is in fact a toy of beings who are much more powerful than he is; a painting, after all, privileges the moment – the scene that the viewer enjoys right here – over the narrative context. Nor is it enough to point out that in the story there is no sexual entanglement between Paris/Hermes and Hera/Aphrodite/Athena; for that’s exactly the usual situation of the voyeur, the lap-dance patron, the man watching an “artistic” movie.   

 

Rubens does segregate the men from the women. There is a colour contrast between the area around the goddesses and the rest of the painting: the three goddesses plus Cupid are shown with brighter skin against a darker background; a painting within the painting. That’s why we consider Hermes, located in the outer frame, an honorary countryman. You can piece out a contrast between the world of men – open-air and normative – and a woman’s world (with maternity strongly emphasized) that is objectified by the contest-framework: the women are divine, incredibly beautiful, maternal and at the same time carry the irrational terrors of the Gorgon and Alecto. Note the phallic and straightforward tree of Paris and Hermes in contrast to the nebulous engulfing darkness of the tree over on the left. Hera’s cloak forms a barrier between the female world and the onlooking male world which is allowed to gaze but doesn’t comprehend. In this sub-story the goddesses are seen not as competitors but as a united group. Athena’s turned head emphasizes that the gazing is all in one direction, the women are apparently not interested in examining the appearance of the men. 

 

In this painting as often in Rubens the facial expressions are relaxed and handsome (do we doubt that Hera’s is any different?) so there is a suggestion of five adults acting out a drama or myth but not experiencing its tensions, and this in fact is already an element in Lucian’s tale, in which Zeus proposes the contest as just a simple beauty contest: its fateful implications are not grasped by the participants. The warmth in the picture relates to this aspect. Though War cries overhead and is the meaning of the myth, the painting successfully asserts a tranquillity that is merely enriched by its darker elements.

 

 

Note 1.

 

Other paintings of The Judgement of Paris (images follow descriptions).

 

1. Lucas Cranach, Judgement of Paris.

 

 

2. Paolo Veronese, Judgement of Paris.

 

 

 

3. Rubens, a small early Judgement of Paris in the Vienna Gemäldegalerie, oil on copper, 34 x 45 cm.

 

4. Rubens, an early Judgement of Paris, oil on panel. I don’t know anything else about it except that it was in the NG exhibition “Rubens, The Making of a Master” (2005-6)

 

5. Rubens, Painted ca. 1600. Oil on oak, 133.9 x 174.5 cm.National Gallery, London, NG 6379. Composition based on design by Raphael known through engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi.

 

 

5. Rubens, The Judgement of Paris in the Prado, Madrid, painted 1639. This was part of Philip IV’s commission for his summer palace, the Torre de la Parada. His brother the Cardinal Infant Ferdinand was a little worried about insufficient drapery, but the king liked it. This is thought to be the last Rubens painting to portray his second wife Hélène Fourment, on this occasion as Aphrodite.

 

 

 

6. Claude Lorrain, The Judgement of Paris.

 

 

 

7. Watteau, Judgement of Paris. Watteau’s unusual treatment has attracted attention. The naked Aphrodite dominates a shrunken Paris and it’s been suggested that the other two goddesses are staring at her unveiled genitals.  

 

 

 

8. The Judgement of Paris, engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi after a picture by Angelica Kauffmann. The most novelistic of treatments, this places its emphasis on the understanding between Aphrodite and Paris; a society affair.

 

 

 

 

9. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), The Judgement of Paris, oil on canvas, 73 x 92.5 cm, Museum of Art, Hiroshima, c. 1913-14. This is a late painting (when Renoir’s hands were crippled by arthritis). It’s a little surprising that a man who prided himself on having broken away from the “subject” should choose to paint a Judgement of Paris. However, there is pointedly little interest in the drama, and this painting needs to be seen as part of Renoir’s late interest in large decorative works based on multiple nudes. The painting also led to a bronze bas-relief (1914) and a free-standing bronze of the figure of Aphrodite (“Venus Triumphant”).

 

 

 

10. Pablo Picasso, The Judgement of Paris.

 

 

 

 

11. Salvador Dali, The Judgement of Paris.

 

 

 

12. Charles Bell, The Judgement of Paris.

 

 

 

 

13. Mary Ellen Croteau, The Judgement of Paris.

 

 

(2006)

 

A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now

About

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