Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 3 – Daphne, and how the laurel became the crown

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), Apollo and Daphne (c 1744-45), oil on canvas, 96 x 79 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of the last myth concerning the flood, Apollo killed Python, the monster, with his bow and arrows. Ovid uses this, and his lines about the Pythian Games, to lead into the next myth, which centres on Apollo and Daphne.

The Story

Of the gods whose love affairs Ovid describes, Apollo seems the least successful. After his achievement in killing Python, he takes the mickey out of Cupid over his use of the bow and arrow, calling him a mischievous boy, and claiming that only a real man (like him) should try to use them. Cupid responds in kind, claiming that his bow will vanquish even Apollo. He then flies to the top of Mount Parnassus, and looses two arrows: a golden one aimed at Apollo, to inflame him with love for Daphne, the other a special lead-tipped arrow, which turns her off any amorous advances.

The stage is set for the first of Ovid’s many tales of attempted rape or seduction. Apollo is completely smitten with Daphne, a naiad or water-nymph, but Daphne wants nothing to do with him. Even before she was struck by Cupid’s lead arrow, she had resolved to remain a virgin, rejecting every suitor, and events only strengthen her resolution.

His heart on fire for her, and his mind wondering dangerously towards raw lust, Apollo starts to chase Daphne through the countryside. As he runs he breathlessly tries to persuade her to stop and give in to his desires, but she keeps running just out of his reach. Eventually the pair tire:
Her strength spent, pale and faint, with pleading eyes
she gazed upon her father’s waves and prayed,
“Help me my father, if thy flowing streams
have virtue! Cover me, O mother Earth!
Destroy the beauty that has injured me,
or change the body that destroys my life.”
Before her prayer was ended, torpor seized
on all her body, and a thin bark closed
around her gentle bosom, and her hair
became as moving leaves; her arms were changed
to waving branches, and her active feet
as clinging roots were fastened to the ground —
her face was hidden with encircling leaves. —
Phoebus admired and loved the graceful tree,
(For still, though changed, her slender form remained)
and with his right hand lingering on the trunk
he felt her bosom throbbing in the bark.
He clung to trunk and branch as though to twine.
His form with hers, and fondly kissed the wood
that shrank from every kiss.

Daphne, whose name is Greek for laurel, had been transformed into a laurel, and escaped the clutches of Apollo. This is the story of how the laurel came to be made; given Apollo’s continuing love for Daphne, it is also the story of how it was he that decreed that crowns of laurel should be awarded to victors of games, and the like.

The Paintings

Piero del Pollaiuolo (c 1441-1496), Apollo and Daphne (c 1470-80), oil on wood, 29.5 x 20 cm, The National Gallery (Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876), London. Photo © The National Gallery, London.

Pollaiuolo’s Apollo and Daphne (c 1470-80) is one of the earliest, and remains one of the most famous, depictions of this myth. Apollo’s pursuit has ended, he has reached his quarry and is embracing her, as she changes into a laurel. Already her arms have become exuberant bushes, and her feet are rapidly rooting into the ground.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), Apollo and Daphne (c 1744-45), oil on canvas, 96 x 79 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The other famous painting of this myth is Tiepolo’s Apollo and Daphne (c 1744-45), which brings in Cupid, who is somewhat immodestly sheltering from his victim Apollo beneath Daphne’s billowing robe. In front of them, his back to the viewer, is Daphne’s father, the river god Ladon, who carries his oar as an attribute. Daphne’s transformation is at a much earlier stage, the fingers of her right hand sprouting leaves, but it is obvious what is just about to happen. It’s also noteworthy that Apollo wears a crown of laurels, rather than oak leaves.

What surprises me, though, is the number of artists who have apparently painted very different scenes.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Apollo in Love with Daphne (1664), oil on canvas, 155 x 200 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In the last year of Nicolas Poussin’s life, the master of narrative painting made this, currently titled Apollo in Love with Daphne (1664). Its key actors are all at its edges: Apollo sits at the left looking across the painting, with Cupid just in front of him, about to loose an arrow at Daphne, who sits with her bearded father at the far right. Mercury is behind Apollo, at the left edge, apparently about to steal one of his arrows. Two women lounge in the prominent oak tree at the left, and there is no reference to Daphne’s imminent pursuit or transformation.

Quite a few painters chose to depict Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne, without making any visual reference to her fate, which seems to me to have missed the point of the myth entirely.

Story of Apollo and Daphne exhibited 1837 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Story of Apollo and Daphne (1837), oil on wood, 109.9 x 198.8 cm, The Tate Gallery (Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Neither is it clear what the great JMW Turner intended in his Story of Apollo and Daphne, which was exhibited in 1837. In the foreground, the tiny figures of a greyhound coursing a hare quote Ovid’s metaphor. Behind them are Apollo and Daphne, apparently strolling gently together, with Cupid to the rear. Much of the painting is an elaborate fantasy landscape which apparently is supposed to represent Tempe (which is in fact a narrow ravine, not an open valley like the vale of Larissa).

Ruskin – in whose eyes ‘modern painters’ were primarily landscape rather than narrative artists – went to great lengths to interpret this as illustrating “the union of the rivers and the earth; and of the perpetual help and delight granted by the streams, in their dew, to the earth’s foliage.” Yet Turner showed the painting with a quotation from Dryden’s translation of Ovid.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Apollo and Daphne (1908), oil on canvas, 145 x 112 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

John William Waterhouse’s Apollo and Daphne (1908) is at least back on story. Apollo, holding his lyre with his left hand, has just reached Daphne, who looks justifiably alarmed. However, instead of following tradition and showing her transforming into a laurel, she is being encased within one, which is not exactly a metamorphosis. Some have claimed that Waterhouse used Bernini’s marvellous marble statue of the couple as his source, but Bernini showed transformation, not encasement.

Franz Eugen Köhler & Walther Müller, plate I-1 of Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen (Band I) (1887). Wikimedia Commons.

Inevitably Waterhouse was assiduous in showing not only the distinctive leaves of the laurel, but its flowers too: this is confirmed by comparison with Köhler and Müller’s botanical illustration above.

So I think that I’ll choose Pollaiuolo and Tiepolo, for capturing the moment of transformation so brilliantly, and crown them with laurels.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.