Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 11 – Actaeon’s fatal mistake

Giuseppe Cesari (1568–1640), Diana and Actaeon (1602-03), oil on copper, 50 × 69 cm, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.

Cadmus founded the city of Thebes, and in his series of stories about that city, Ovid moves on to consider the fate of its founder’s grandson, Actaeon.

Unusually, Ovid prefaces this story with a short summary lamenting the fate of both Actaeon and Ovid:
Thy grandson, Cadmus, was the first to cast
thy dear felicity in sorrow’s gloom.
Oh, it was pitiful to witness him,
his horns outbranching from his forehead, chased
by dogs that panted for their master’s blood!
If thou shouldst well inquire it will be shown
his sorrow was the crime of Fortune—not
his guilt—for who maintains mistakes are crimes?

This appears to refer to Ovid’s ‘mistake’ which led to Augustus banishing him to a far corner of the Empire, on the coast of the Black Sea, in 8 CE.

The Story

Thebes is now a city, and Actaeon, the founder’s grandson, was out hunting. Having enjoyed considerable success earlier in the day, he calls on his companions to stop now that it has grown hot. Unknown to Actaeon, Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt, had a sacred wood nearby, in which she too had grown tired after the morning’s hunting. She had just reached a cave with her favourite pool where her companion nymphs could help her bathe.

Actaeon inadvertently entered the wood and, guided by the Fates, stumbled across Diana, naked, in the pool. The nymphs took fright:
soon as he entered where the clear springs welled
or trickled from the grotto’s walls, the nymphs,
now ready for the bath, beheld the man,
smote on their breasts, and made the woods resound,
suddenly shrieking. Quickly gathered they
to shield Diana with their naked forms, but she
stood head and shoulders taller than her guards.—
as clouds bright-tinted by the slanting sun,
or purple-dyed Aurora, so appeared
Diana’s countenance when she was seen.
Oh, how she wished her arrows were at hand!
But only having water, this she took
and dashed it on his manly countenance,
and sprinkled with the avenging stream his hair,
and said these words, presage of future woe;
“Go tell it, if your tongue can tell the tale,
your bold eyes saw me stripped of all my robes.”
No more she threatened, but she fixed the horns
of a great stag firm on his sprinkled brows;
she lengthened out his neck; she made his ears
sharp at the top; she changed his hands and feet;
made long legs of his arms, and covered him
with dappled hair—his courage turned to fear.

Transformed into a stag by the water that Diana splashed onto him, Actaeon flees. As he stands wondering what to do, his own hunting dogs catch up with him. Ovid lists them to paint the scene in its fullest detail, as the dogs attack Actaeon and inflict wound after wound. Actaeon’s companions see the dogs’ success in attacking their quarry, and call in vain to him as he lies dying.

Ovid closes this tragic story with opinions of Diana’s vicious action, telling us that some felt it unjust, but others viewed it as proper defence of her virginity – an interesting contrast with his earlier accounts of Jupiter’s serial rapes.

The Paintings

This is another of Ovid’s myths which has been very influential on artists, but this time it has remained popular after the ‘official death’ of history painting in the late nineteenth century. Once again, I am going to be pernickety, and look mainly at those paintings which identify Diana, and give us clues as to Actaeon’s transformation and grisly fate. The many paintings of naked nymphs cavorting in a pool are delightful, but their figurative strength is matched by their narrative weakness.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875), Diana and Actaeon (1836), oil on canvas, 156.5 × 112.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Of my shortlist, Corot’s Diana and Actaeon (1836) captures the earliest moment, and is, in a subtle way, by far the bravest. For a couple of centuries after multiplex narrative fell into disfavour, Corot uses it to good effect. He also achieves a perfect balance between his marvellous woodland landscape, of which Ovid would have been proud, and the figures.

Most prominent are those of Diana and her attendant nymphs, who are behaving like real people for once, climbing a branch bent over the water, and soaking up the sunshine. At the right, Actaeon with one of his hunting dogs is just about to run straight into them. Diana, appropriately crowned, stands pointing to the distant figure at the left – which is again Actaeon, antlers growing from his head as she transforms him into a stag.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), The Summer – Diana Surprised by Actaeon (1856-63), oil on canvas, 194 × 165 cm, São Paulo Museum of Art, São Paulo, Brazil. Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of his career, Eugène Delacroix was commissioned by the Alsacian industrialist Frederick Hartmann to paint him four allegorical paintings of the seasons in which they are personified in characters from classical mythology. The Summer – Diana Surprised by Actaeon (1856-63) is another faithful depiction of Ovid’s story.

Actaeon has just arrived from the right, accompanied by the dogs who would shortly turn on him. He faces Diana, who is marked out by the crescent moon on her diadem, as the attendant nymphs make haste to cover her body. Already antlers are growing from his head.

In common with his other late paintings, this is wonderfully loose and prescient of Impressionism.

Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1600), Diana and Actaeon (1597), distemper and gold on vellum mounted on panel, 22 x 33.9 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Darting back almost three hundred years, Joris Hoefnagel’s Diana and Actaeon (1597), finely executed in distemper and gold on vellum, uses a different composition of the same basic elements. However, he has been able to incorporate an additional and significant detail from the textual account, in that Diana is crouching low over the water and splashing the approaching Actaeon with water, scooped up by her left hand.

Giuseppe Cesari (1568–1640), Diana and Actaeon (1602-03), oil on copper, 50 × 69 cm, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.

That is also true of Giuseppe Cesari’s Diana and Actaeon (1602-03), which was almost contemporary with Hoefnagel’s. Cesari’s Diana and her nymphs don’t look as shocked and alarmed as they should, but Actaeon’s hounds are getting ready to pick a fight with him, as if they can tell what those growing antlers mean.

Martin Johann Schmidt (1718–1801), Diana and Actaeon (1785), oil on copper plate, 55 × 77 cm, Narodna galerija Slovenije, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Wikimedia Commons.

Martin Johann Schmidt captures the splashed water in mid-flight in his Diana and Actaeon of 1785, and is one of the few artists to have heeded Ovid’s description of Diana’s great stature in comparison with the nymphs. Another detail which he depicts well is the nymph who is standing in front of Diana to shield her body from Actaeon’s sight.

Zygmunt Waliszewski (1897-1936), Diana and Actaeon (1935), further details not know. Image by Ablakok, via Wikimedia Commons.

The most modern painting which I can show here is Zygmunt Waliszewski’s Diana and Actaeon, made in 1935, only shortly before his sudden and premature death. He shows a slightly later moment in time, as Actaeon’s hounds have started to attack the stag. Diana bears her crescent moon, and appears to be about to take aim with her bow and an arrow she is drawing from the quiver on her back.

My last choice has to be one of Titian’s two superb paintings of this story. These were both intended for King Philip II of Spain, who commissioned him to paint a series of six works based on classical mythology. The paintings that Titian delivered include those of Danae (1549-50), Venus and Adonis (1552-54), Perseus and Andromeda (1554-56), Diana and Actaeon (1556-59), and the Rape of Europa (1559-62) (shown here a couple of articles ago). Although a fine work, that of Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) was more about Diana and her companions, and less about the story.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (c 1490–1576), The Death of Actaeon (c 1559-75), oil on canvas, 178.8 cm x 197.8 cm, The National Gallery (Bought with grants and public appeal, 1972), London. Photo © The National Gallery, London.

But Titian also painted The Death of Actaeon (c 1559-75), which he completed shortly before his death, and was never delivered. It is a great painting, much more narrative than his earlier Diana and Actaeon, and something of a puzzle: it is the odd painting out.

Here, Actaeon’s transformation is incomplete, and he is shown as a man with a stag’s head. Nevertheless, his dogs are attacking him, and his death is inevitable. For some unaccountable reason, Diana is shown largely (if rather loosely) dressed, having just loosed an arrow at Actaeon, as if she had second thoughts and wished to hasten his death.

Perhaps Titian took pity on Actaeon, and tried to finish him off more humanely than Diana or Ovid.

I am delighted, once again, to be spoilt for choice. If you don’t mind me taking two, I’ll go for the Corot with its wonderful trees and multiplex narrative, and Delacroix’s pre-Impressionist painterliness.

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.