UA1-WA:P2-p1-Ex Annotation of a mythological painting

This exercise asks for an annotation of a mythological painting, with no restriction on time period. I have chosen Hero and Leander (c. 1625-1626) by Nicolas Régnier which is on display at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) (see http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/4289).

The main reason for my choice was simple availability. I would rather work from a painting that I can visit and experience directly and this painting is one of those I spent time with on my recent trip to Melbourne.

Hero and Leander  (c. 1625-1626)

Nicolas Régnier
Hero and Leander
(c. 1625-1626)
Image provided by NGV
http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/4289

Hero kneels on the beach by the body of her drowned lover Leander. She looks up to the heavens, her face white, her arms stretched wide, imploring, desperate. There is tension, but no movement. This is a moment of still, dramatic intensity between two violent actions.

The story of Hero and Leander has attracted many writers, including Virgil, Ovid and Christopher Marlowe. The one I found easiest to read and understand was written in Greek by Musaeus around the middle of the 5th century AD and translated by E.E. Sikes (Sikes, 1920). Hero was a virgin priestess of Aphrodite, living in a high tower in Sestios. Leander was a youth in Abydos, across the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles strait). They saw each other at a festival and “Love bent his bow; a single arrow flamed Piercing two mortals”. Leander persuaded Hero to become his wife secretly, with Night the celebrant and Silence the bridesmaid. He would swim across the water to her each night, guided only by a lamp that Hero lit in her tower. This worked for a time until winter came bringing fierce winds and swollen waves. Hero lit her lamp and Leander braved the surf, but “Love had confronted Fate, and Fate prevailed”. A violent gust of wind blew out the light, Leander’s strength was spent, and his life and love lost.

Hero watcheed through the night, hoping that Leander could still come, that he might have landed elsewhere when the guiding light failed. Finally dawn came and Hero saw Leander’s broken body on the rocks below. She leapt from her tower, to take her last breaths at her husband’s side. “So Love, in Death itself, was satisfied.” (All quotes from Sikes, 1920).

ngv_4289I’ve put a small version of NGV image to the left, just to save scrolling up and down so much. Click on it to go to the NGV page, www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/4289. Hero is still alive, but death is approaching. Behind to the left we can see dawn breaking, the storming clouds clearing, and the waves calming. Above at the right the dark hill leading to Hero’s tower can just be made out. Further placing the scene, at the front there are some scattered shells on the beach. These are a good example of the benefits of seeing the original work. When planning my trip to Melbourne I looked at the web image and thought the foreground objects were garlic, but strangely none of my internet searches on variants of “Leander Hero garlic” found any matches!

ngv_regnier_linesketchI love looking for lines and rhythms in paintings, and I kept finding more and more. The most dominant is that great, wide sweep of Hero’s arms. She reaches almost edge to edge, and the slightly shallower and shifted echoing sweep of Leander’s arms completes that span. On the line sketch you can see that I’ve found more echoes (in red) in the folds of Hero’s clothing.

Hero’s pale face is at the apex of a triangle and together with her pallor, almost lightest value in the image, makes this the focus – but the upward thrust of the triangle is stabilised by those sweeps. In purple and blue I’ve shown other diagonals that repeat and cross each other. I think this complex of stabilised movement really drives that sense of a still, dramatic intensity that I mentioned at the beginning.

Finally, those little rhythms in orange, connecting the two lovers together, one in death, one still living for a few more moments – I find so poignant.

The colour palette is mainly restricted to tones and values of a warm brown, with touches of blue in sky, water and Hero’s sash. There is a spotlight effect on Hero’s face and breast, both through higher values and in the cold tones of her skin. She, still living, is paler than Leander in death, her apparent pallor increased by the contrast of a warm pink in her bodice. In addition to directing focus and increasing drama, this skin treatment could be a reference to passages in Musaues’s text – earlier, that “And from her perfect face a radiancy Shone, as the clear moon in a cloudless sky” (Sikes, 1920, pp. 14 – 15) and then “Watched, leaden-eyed, in sleepless vigilance” (Sikes, 1920, p. 26). Although I have included colour value as one of the means used to direct our eyes, in fact I think this is largely achieved through the composition. There are areas of light value across virtually the entire width and height of the painting, including her large right sleeve and at the edges the dawn and those shells, but Hero’s face and chest at the apex of that triangle continue to draw the eye.

regnier_2

Detail from Nicolas Régnier
Hero and Leander
(c. 1625-1626)
My photograph, used with kind permission of NGV

The richness of Hero’s clothing and jewels gives texture and detail interest to the painting and also indicates Hero’s status as a priestess. The pearls could be a reference to Hero’s waterside home, or possibly a symbol of profane love (Hall, 2008). I haven’t been able to find further information on the symbolism of rubies. The detailed band edging Hero’s bodice caught my attention – I would love to try weaving that pattern (it could be embroidery, but naturally I prefer to push my preferred textile technique!). I enjoy the way the placement of the pearls repeats the weave structure of the band. The patterning of the skirts links to the foliage behind, their warm brown-orange tones with and enriches the colouring of Hero’s environment, and their shape helps anchor that triangle.

Leander’s arms reflect Hero’s, but there is no tension – they lie heavily on the ground. His body has the physique of a fit young man, one who can undertake feats of strength swimming across the straits, but it lies bent awkwardly, heavily foreshortened, inanimate. Leander’s near nakedness contrasts with Hero’s rich and voluminous clothing. On his closed eyes you can see every eyelash.

There is a high level of finish on the figures of both Leander and Hero, smooth and without any visible individual brushstrokes. They are moulded with shadow, not edged with lines.

Although there are indicators of the myth of Hero and Leander – a young man dead on the beach, a richly dressed woman beside him, signs of dawn, of waves, of a storm passed, of a hill that may hold a tower – some of the stronger identifiers are not seen. There is no tower on the hill, no lamp, no sign of Poseidon, Cupid or a Nereid or sea-horses. It seems to be similar to a comment in the course textbook, referring to the work of Titian: “”His aim was neither to illustrate a literary text not to enrich it with variations, but to create autonomous works of art” (Honour and Fleming, 2009, p. 491). They go on to mention Hero and Leander (Marlowe’s version) as a particular example of a suitable subject. This would have been around the 1550s, so well before Régnier’s work.

I haven’t been able to find a great deal of information about Nicolas Régnier on the internet or the reference books immediately to hand. He was born in Maubeuge, in the very far north of France, around 1590. He may have been an apprentice in the workshop of Abraham Janssens, a Flemish painter who had travelled to Italy at least once. Régnier himself went to Rome sometime between 1615 and 1621. He left Rome for Venice in 1625 or 1626 – that is, right around the time of this painting. Stair Sainty Gallery states that Régnier’s work while in Rome was more “dramatically charged” than his later work in Venice which tended to “smooth and languishing” (Stair Sainty Gallery [n.d.]). I think based on this that Hero and Leander was painted in Rome, or if in Venice before other influences came into play.

I found some other interesting interpretations of this myth.

The National Trust in the UK has tapestries circa 1660 to circa 1690 after a design by Francis Cleyn, on show at Cotehele, Cornwall – see The Death of Hero and Leander at http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/348324.3. This version includes more symbolic items, such as cupid holding an extinguished torch.

Yale University Library holds a c. 1605-06 version by Peter Paul Rubens – see http://artgallery.yale.edu/pages/collection/popups/pc_european/enlarge25.html. This is very dramatic – massive waves surrounding the drowning Leander, who is being supported by Nereids. Unfortunately I’m not able to make out any detail on the web image. I think on the right may be Hero plunging to the ground.

Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Parting of Hero and Leander (before 1837), http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-mallord-william-turner-the-parting-of-hero-and-leander, is held by The National Gallery in London. This seems to show an earlier episode in the myth, complete with substantial Classical buildings and temples covering the hill beside the sea.

Hero Mourning the Dead Leander (1621 – 1622) by Domenico Fetti is held at Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (Museum of Fine Arts) and can be seen online in the Google Art Project http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/hero-mourning-the-dead-leander/wgEaw7tjfKBnFA?hl=pt&projectId=art-project. This has almost a comic strip effect and includes a crying cupid, Nereids and the falling Hero.

There are many more, but the one I would really like to see is Hero Mourns the Dead Leander by Jan van den Hoecke, 1635-1637, also at Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. See http://bilddatenbank.khm.at/viewArtefact?id=934. This seems to be one of those “exactly the same but entirely different” paintings – a shell-strewn seashore, the distorted body of the drowned man, Hero kneeling over him with outstretched hand. In an upper corner (right-hand side this time) can be seen the strait, distant land, and dawn breaking through a cloudy sky. Cupid makes an appearance in this version, possibly with a lamp. Jan van den Hoecke was a Flemish painter and this was painted around 10 years after Régnier’s. The Flemish link makes me wonder whether van den Hoecke may have seen a copy of Régnier’s work, or if both were influenced by some other, earlier painting.

Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (Second Edition). Boulder: Westview Press.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Sikes, EE (1920) Hero & Leander: Translated from the Greek of Musaeus (London: Methuen) [online] Available at http://www.archive.org/stream/heroandleander00musauoft#page/2/mode/2up [Accessed 10 July 2013]

Stair Sainty Gallery [n.d.] REGNIER, NICOLAS: MAUBERGE 1591 – VENICE 1667 [online] Available from http://www.europeanpaintings.com/paintings/regnier-nicolas/ [Accessed 23 July 2013]

UA1-WA:P2-p1-Ex Annotation of a mythological painting
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project one: Mythology in the High Renaissance
Exercise: Annotation of a mythological painting

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