Great Paintings: Orestes Pursued by the Furies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Orestes Pursued by the Furies
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most gruesome and frightening stories in Western literature come from ancient Greek literature. As Halloween season continues, I want to bring you a painting that represents one of the darkest stories in Greek canon: the tale of Orestes.

In Greek mythology and literature, Orestes is the son of the legendary King Agamemnon (of The Iliad) and Queen Clytemnestra. As the story is told by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, Clytemnestra swore vengeance against Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia. When Agamemnon returned home after the end of the Trojan war, Clytemnestra and her lover murder Agamemnon and seize control of his kingdom. Years later, Orestes returns home bent on seeking revenge for his father’s death. Spurred on by the god Apollo, Orestes and his sister Electra conspire to kill their mother, and Orestes eventually succeeds in killing Clytemnestra and her lover.

However, the murder of a family members constitutes a grave offense against ancient Greek morality and piety; in punishment for the sin of matricide, Orestes is pursued relentlessly by the Eumenides (commonly known as the Furies in English). The play ends when he is finally able to claim sanctuary from the goddess Athena, who arranges a formal trial to assess his guilt.

Needless to say, it’s a pretty crazy story.

The various stories and myths surrounding the family of Agamemnon have fascinated artists for centuries, but there are few subjects more dramatic than Orestes fleeing the wrath of the Furies. French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, captures this poignant and terrifying moment in Orestes Pursued by the Furies, one of his most famous works.

As the title suggests, the painting portrays the three Eumenides in pursuit of Orestes. The central figures are all grouped together in the center of the piece, with Orestes in the middle. His face conveys his terror and horror as he bends his head and covers his ears in an attempt to escape the fury of the goddesses. The Furies themselves are arrayed behind him, their faces distorted by rage and snakes wound in their hair. Their flesh is greenish grey, a clear visual marker that sets the Furies apart from the ordinary world of the living people. The three deities are accompanied by a fourth woman: the ghost of Clytemnestra. A bloody dagger protrudes from her chest, a reminder to the viewer of Orestes’ crimes. The Eumenides point towards the dead woman, a gesture that both accuses and condemns Orestes.

As an artist, Bouguereau was primarily interested in reinterpreting classical themes and portraying the female body, making the subject of Orestes and the Furies a natural choice for him. His style can be described as Academic, meaning that it followed the standards of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, the artistic establishment of the time. This style draws heavily on the Neoclassical and Romantic movements and can best be understood as a combination of these styles.

It’s possible to see the Romantic influence in Bouguereau’s work in the wild and furious expressions of the furies, while the precision of line and attention to detail in the figure of Orestes is reminiscent of French Neoclassicism. In comparison to the Furies, Orestes appears stiff and posed, his body executed in a highly polished style. This contrast mirrors the divide between the supernatural and natural worlds. Orestes, as a human, is overcome by the wild and otherworldly power of the Furies.

It is this contrast that makes the painting visually interesting and that makes it such a fantastic piece of eerie, unsettling art. I hope it makes your October a little more spooky.

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