Thursday, July 21, 2011

Orestes Pursued by the Furies, Chrysler Museum

Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 1862, oil on canvas, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia, USA

Orestes Pursued by the Furies was painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1862 and is based on the myth of Orestes, the only son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.   According to the Homeric account, Agamemnon on his return from Troy did not see his son, but was murdered by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra before he had an opportunity of seeing Orestes. In the eighth year after his father's murder Orestes came from Athens to Mycenae and slew the murderer of his father.  In the Greek mythology the Furies: Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera painted in the center of the painting are driving Orestes mad with their vengeance for his mother, Clytemnestra’s murder. 

Bouguereau’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies was painted in 1862 on the cusp of the Impressionist movement in art. His brushstrokes were extremely smooth, barely discernible, and created a glossy glass-like finish.  The tones of the colors and classical studies of painting the human body contributed to the beauty and emotion evoked by of this painting. 

The painting has five figures, Orethes, his mother Clytemnestra, and the three Furies: Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera are clustered tightly together in the center of the canvas. In the Greek mythology the Furies: Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera painted in the center of the painting, surrounding Orestes, are driving him mad in revenge for Clytemnestra’s murder.  Orestes, the main character of the painting, is the male clad in only a stark white mantle draped around his left arm and thigh, clutching his ears violently to avoid the screaming of his crimes by the three Furies.  Additionally, the pain caused by his actions and the Furies screams contorts Orestes’ face in pain and agony. Clytemnestra, Orestes’ mother, is on the far left of the canvas with her head thrown back, her long brown hair flowing down her back.  Her long hair echoes the long blood red mantle that drapes the lower half of her body and continues to flow along the ground toward the farthest right lower corner of the canvas. The right most Fury supports Clytemnestra’s upper torso. Clytemnestra, not yet dead is reaching with her right hand for the dagger impaling her thru her white night blouse. Her pallor is one of a person on thin veil between life and death.  All the Furies show anger, vengeance, and violence, which is portrayed in their faces and gestures.  The two Furies on the left of the canvas are difficult to see as they are in the background behind Orestes and Clytemnestra.  The Fury furthest to the right of the canvas is half nude in a blue-grey mantle flowing around the lower half of her body, which also drapes her left arm. She is carrying a torch in her left hand, a symbol of the illumination of a passage on a journey.  The three Furies all have Medusa like hair with snakes echoing the anger of the Furies themselves. The foreground illuminated by an unknown source of light, perhaps a mythical light source exemplifying the crime and punishment of Orestes’ deeds. The background of the painting is subordinated by chiaroscuro. In the right foreground a twisted and thorny vines creep across the path of the characters of this painting. 

Bouguereau utilized both actual line and implied line in this painting.  His use of implied lines via the pointing, accusing fingers of all the Furies directed toward the murdered Clytemnestra thereby directing the observers attention on her and away from the dramatic actions of Orestes.  Clytemnesta’s own hand and arm create an implied line in the opposite direction of the Furies pointing toward the dagger in her chest and therefore the crime.  The parallel lines created by the Furies’ arms pointing toward the impaled Clytemnestra indicate the equality of their position both in the painting and as “demi-gods”.  The red, orange, and yellow flames from the far right Furies’ torch makes an implied diagonal line from the torch’s flame downward toward the left and flows alongside the outside of Clytemnestra’s red robe down to the far left bottom of the canvas.  The effect of this implied line redirects the sight of the observer in the direction of the original source of this scene.  All the actual and implied lines of this painting serve to continuously redirect the observer’s attention to different parts of the drama being performed on the canvas.

Bouguereau balanced this painting, which created unity as well as discord via many methods including the use of several perceived triangles.  Traditionally, the main character would be placed at the apex of the triangle thus creating a hierarchy of people within the painting.  In this painting there is an inverted triangle with Clytemnestra and the three Furies creating the long line of the triangle and the lower point of Orestes’ white robe creating the apex.  There may be many reasons for the inverted triangle, however it makes sense that Orestes would be the apex as he is the center of the story, the inversion of the triangle creates a discord in the theme of the painting.  A triangle created by Orestes’ legs on the ground serves to visually stabilize the painting as is traditional in classical painting.

Bouguereau utilized a restricted pallet on this canvas with grand effect.  The main colors utilized by the artist were reds, slate blue, browns and a small amount of yellow and orange.  The use of color furthers the inhuman characteristics of the Furies with an eerie gray bluish skin tone and the pale white skin of Clytemnestra as compared to the sun warmed skin tone of Orestes.  The use of red on the clothing of the murdered mother serve to create a dramatic focal point and strong emotion in the observer as it flows down the right side of the canvas much like the blood flowing down her chest from the dagger impaling her.  The red is then repeated in a muted shade in small amounts dotted throughout the “Medusa like hair” of the Furies in the snakes’ mouths and their forked tongues.  The red ends to the right of the canvas in a torch held by the outstretched arm of the right most Fury which is draped in a slate blue mantle and continues down her back, then wraps around her lower torso to cover her nude body.  The red, orange and yellow of the torch are muted in comparison with the red of the blood and robe of Clytemnestra on the far left of the canvas. The torch, however small and muted in color draws the eye back to the murdered Clytemnestra by creating an implied diagonal line from the torch to the red robe. It must be noted that the red, orange, and yellow of the torch’s colors pale in comparison to the red of the blood and robe of the murdered Clytemnestra, much like the punishment for Orestes pales in comparison to his crime.

The use of tone and value are also employed for both uniformity and contrast. The stark white paint for Orestes’ robe surrounding his left arm and his central torso is repeated on his mother, Clytemnestra’s white night blouse on her upper torso and arms unifying the relationship of the two figures. Bouguereau utilized chiaroscuro, with black and brown tones to create a subordination of the background thus further drawing attention back to the focal point of the painting.

When painting Orestes Pursued by the Furies, Bouguereau painted the canvas and the figures larger than life.  There are two plausible reasons for the size of both the canvas and the figures.  The painting itself refers to a classical theme, time, and style, which would have made the size of the painting quite appropriate.  Moreover, the moral lessons themselves are larger than life and were reflected in the size of the canvas and the figures.

~ A Girl Named Fred

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