The Story in Paintings: Ariadne on Naxos

Guido Reni (1575-1642), Bacchus and Ariadne (c 1619-20), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 86.4 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

When discussing Lovis Corinth’s Ariadne on Naxos, I glibly asserted that previous monoscenic approaches were neither strong in a narrative sense, nor complete. Given that the best-known of those is a Titian, this article surveys other paintings which show that same story.

The story

Ariadne, the daughter of Minos the King of Crete, helped Theseus, son of King Aegeus, to kill the Minotaur. She had fallen in love with him at first sight, and when he had found his way back out of the labyrinth, the couple eloped to the barren island of Naxos.

Once there, Theseus had tired of her, and abandoned her, leaving her with her attendant nymphs Naiad, Dryad, and Echo for company. She then longed for death, and when Dionysus (Roman Bacchus) arrived, she married him, and bore him many children.


There are two distinct moments when Ariadne’s fortune changes: it swings from good to bad when she discovers that Theseus has abandoned her, and it swings back from bad to good when Dionysus turns up and marries her. Neither is particularly associated with the revelation of any new knowledge or information, but they both appear to be capable of making strong narrative in a painting.

The difficulty with depicting the story in a single painting is that it consists of two events which necessarily take place at separate times.

The painter can therefore opt to show Theseus departing, but then somehow needs to cue the forthcoming arrival of Dionysus, or they can opt to show Dionysus arriving, leaving the problem of cueing the previous departure of Theseus. Using a ship departing/arriving as either cue is an obvious solution, but is insufficiently explicit to make clear the resulting change in fortune.

It is therefore surprising that no major painter appears to have made a pair of paintings, the first showing Ariadne wishing for death as Theseus departs, and the second showing Ariadne’s joy at the arrival of Dionysus.

There is also more to the original story than the vicissitudes of human love and relationships. Theseus needed Ariadne to enable him to kill the Minotaur and escape from the labyrinth; once she had enabled that, he had no need for her, and could abandon her on Naxos. An alternative version of the myth claims that Athena told Theseus to leave Naxos; he went on to be King of Athens and a founder of the Greek civilisation. Dionysus, on the other hand, took pity on Ariadne in her grief, and married her to make her happy again.

These question our motives, faithfulness to others, and perhaps to our (artistic) principles. In addition to depicting the narrative, a masterly painting would surely tackle those issues too.

Ariadne alone

A few painters have attempted to tell this story in a painting containing just the figure of Ariadne.

Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus (1774), oil on canvas, 90.9 × 63.8 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Angelica Kauffman’s Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus (1774) shows the grief-stricken Ariadne, with Theseus’ ship sailing off into the half-light. Strong in facial expression and body language, there is no reference to Dionysus, leaving the story incomplete. Neither is there any deeper meaning apparent. That said, Ariadne’s robes are wonderfully painterly and diaphanous.

William Etty (1787–1849), Ariadne (year not known), oil on board laid down on masonite, 50.1 × 65.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

William Etty’s Ariadne (probably about 1820) shows the back and buttocks of an essentially naked Ariadne, her face hidden from the viewer. It is possible that there may once have been a ship sailing off to the right, but there is no longer any trace of that. Etty has taken care to paint a wonderfully detailed and spiky shell in the foreground, but its significance is as elusive as any narrative content. I am not sure why this has become known as Ariadne, or whether it was Etty’s intent to even link it to the story.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Ariadne (1898), oil on canvas, 151 x 91 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

John William Waterhouse’s Ariadne (1898) is another puzzle. Ariadne, one breast peeking from her rich red robes, lies back in languor, apparently asleep, two leopards or cheetahs resting by her. In the distance, Theseus’ ship has just sailed. There is no sign of any grief on Ariadne’s part. Although leopards are associated with Dionysus, they cannot be heralds of his imminent arrival.

It is possible that Waterhouse has chosen to show us the moments before Ariadne wakes to discover Theseus has gone, and the red robes could tell us that they have consummated their relationship, but there is nothing to indicate her forthcoming grief, or later elation with Dionysus. As with Etty, Waterhouse appears not to have engaged with the story given in the myth, nor any deeper meaning.

Ariadne plus one

With one additional figure, it should be easier to tell the story more eloquently.

Guido Reni (1575-1642), Bacchus and Ariadne (c 1619-20), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 86.4 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

Guido Reni’s Bacchus and Ariadne (c 1619-20) is a wonderful painting in exceptional condition for its age. It shows Ariadne still looking glum-struck, looking up to the heavens, and away from Dionysus, who is looking at her intently. Both the figures are almost nude, and Ariadne is holding her right hand out towards Dionysus in a gesture whose meaning is not clear (to me, at least). There are several white sails on the horizon, but nothing to associate them with the story, or with Theseus. Beautiful though this painting is, its narrative appears obscure.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Autumn – Bacchus and Ariadne (1856-63), oil on canvas, 196 × 165 cm, São Paulo Museum of Art, São Paulo, Brazil. Wikimedia Commons.

Eugène Delacroix’s Autumn – Bacchus and Ariadne (1856-63) is one of a group of four allegorical works which were commissioned by the industrialist Frederick Hartmann, hence known as Hartmann’s Four Seasons. For autumn, Delacroix has chosen to show Ariadne, looking full of woe and the inertia of depression, being pulled up by one arm, by Dionysus, identified by his thyrsus (staff) and chariot drawn by big cats. Above the couple is a putto bringing out a garland to tell us that love is in the making, and a large flagon is shown on the ground to the right, presumably from her previous union with Theseus.

There is a pile of what appears to be armour in the foreground, which may be a reference to Theseus, although it would seem implausible that he would have stolen away without his armour and sword. Sadly Delacroix died before these paintings were completed, so we can only speculate as to what he intended. However, he does seem to be getting far closer to depicting a complete story.


If two figures are not sufficient, then the solution might be to go for more, at the risk of confusing the viewer.

Unknown, Dionysus and Ariadne (before 79 CE), fresco in Casa dei Capitelli Colorati, Pompeii, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples. By Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the earliest paintings to show this story is this fresco Dionysus and Ariadne found in the ruins of Pompeii. Well over a millenium before Alberti framed his rules for narrative in paintings, its painter shows Ariadne, recumbent against a nymph’s shoulder and looking grief-stricken, being surprised by a whole party accompanying Dionysus.

A winged putto (pre-Christian) is drawing Ariadne’s robes from her, presumably telling Dionysus that she is his for the asking. Those with Dionysus are hard to identify, but presumably include at least one bacchante, and an elderly and drunken Silenius who is being helped up by an African.

Unknown, Bacchus and Ariadne (c 300 CE), mosaic, Sabratha, Libya. By Franzfoto, via Wikimedia Commons.

This rather later mosaic Bacchus and Ariadne in Sabratha, Libya, places the happy couple in Dionysus’ chariot, being drawn by a pair of big cats, with a bacchante in tow. The fourth figure, at the right, is probably also one of Dionysus’ retinue, rather than a link to Theseus and his previous departure.

Titian (1490–1576), Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-3), oil on canvas, 176.5 x 191 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-3) is probably the most famous painting of this myth, and another beautiful work. In the distance, at the left edge, Theseus’ ship is shown sailing away, with Ariadne apparently waving towards it, as Dionysus arrives and leaps out of his chariot. Above Ariadne in the sky is the Corona Borealis, or ‘northern crown’, a minor constellation associated with Ariadne. Behind her is a large drinking vessel on a screwed-up sheet, presumably the remains of the previous night’s celebrations with Theseus.

Dionysus comes with his whole party: his chariot is drawn by a pair of cheetahs, a drunken and bearded Silenius is swathed in serpents, and there are two bacchantes (maenads) and satyrs bearing the body parts of a deer.

This is one of the most complete accounts of the story, which only lacks clues to Ariadne’s grief in response to Theseus’ departure; her face is not sufficiently visible here for Titian to attempt to show any meaningful expression.

Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne (1597-1602), fresco, Palazzo Farnese, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Annibale Carracci’s Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne (1597-1602) is a marvellous fresco on a ceiling in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. It shows a late phase of the happy union of Ariadne with Dionysus, complete with wedding festivities, but omits any reference to her previous grief, or even to Theseus.

The left side is centred on Ariadne, being crowned by a winged putto, and Dionysus, sat in his chariot complete with thyrsus (staff) and drawn by big cats. On the right side, the celebrations appear to be getting out of hand, and have been taken over by bacchantic revels. Figures in that group include the drunked and bearded Silenius, bacchantes with bared breasts, satyrs, and serving putti.

Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734), Bacchus and Ariadne (c 1713), oil on canvas, 75.9 × 63.2 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Sebastiano Ricci’s Bacchus and Ariadne (c 1713) gives a visible account of the discovery of a sleeping Ariadne by Dionysus, but contains subtle references to Theseus too.

Ariadne is still asleep, her left arm caressing the vacant area where Theseus must have been, and a large drinking vessel at the left edge of the painting. In the distance, just to the right of centre, is a man, presumably Theseus, about to steal away.

Dionysus, here with his classically ambivalent gender, has just arrived and stumbled across Ariadne. A bacchante and satyr point her out to him, and sundry putti and another bacchante make up the group. Dionysus holds his thyrsus (staff) in his left hand, and there is a big cat at his feet. As with Titian’s painting, the only element from the story which is lacking is any portrayal of Ariadne’s grief. Because Ricci has collapsed the two outer sections of the story in to overlap, there isn’t really any room for that.

Jean François de Troy (1679–1752), Ariadne on Naxos (1725), oil on canvas, 163.3 x 130.4 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean François de Troy’s Ariadne on Naxos (1725) shows Ariadne and Dionysus swooning with love for one another. Dionysus is shown in a leopard-skin, holding his thyrsus (staff) in his right hand. Plentiful putti are playing on chained bunches of grapes, and a satyr is trying to bring order in the left foreground.

The small window showing the background, on the left, is more revealing still. Look past a copulating bacchante-satyr couple, and other revellers, and there is Theseus’ ship sailing away from the island. Yet again there are no signs of Ariadne’s earlier grief.

Maurice Denis (1870–1943), Bacchus and Ariadne (1907), oil on canvas, 81 x 116 cm, The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Maurice Denis’ Bacchus and Ariadne (1907) is a radically modern treatment, which could be mistaken for a recreational beach scene at a Mediterranean resort. Buried in there, though, are some more traditional references.

Just to the right of centre, Dionysus stands behind Ariadne, helping to hold a red and white striped cloak or sheet on her left shoulder. Ariadne’s three attendant nymphs appear to be resting on the rocks at the left. Various bacchantes and other figures are riding black horses down in the water at the right, one of them clutching the thyrsus (staff). There is no sign of Silenius, a chariot, or big cats, and a yacht at the right edge may not have anything to do with the narrative.

Denis does not appear to include any cues to Ariadne’s earlier grief, nor to the events with Theseus.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Ariadne on Naxos (1913), oil on canvas, 116 × 147 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

I have already described Lovis Corinth’s Ariadne on Naxos (1913) and its composite scenic structure. By including Ariadne reclining on Theseus and the arrival of Dionysus with all his trappings, he gives a full account of the whole story in a single painting.


Each of the monoscenic treatments described above has lost some of the original narrative, which has been retained in Corinth’s composite approach.

In the case of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-3), and Ricci’s Bacchus and Ariadne (c 1713), the losses are small, and not too damaging to the narrative. The Titian is the easier to read, as some of Ricci’s cues are quite subtle, assuming of course that I have read them correctly.

It is much harder to gauge whether any of these paintings, even Corinth’s, go deeper and use the story to consider the concept of faithfulness. This is claimed as a reading of Corinth’s painting, but I am not sure whether anyone has seen it in Titian’s or Ricci’s. Perhaps reading such deeper meanings is inherently more difficult in painted narratives.


Wikipedia on Ariadne.

Ariadne auf Naxos, opera by Richard Strauss – Wikipedia on the opera.