The Paris Salon of 1880 was the largest ever, with nearly 7,300 works on display. Despite the impression that we now have, they were quite an eclectic selection, including paintings by Manet, Monet, and Renoir, even though there had already been an Impressionist exhibition (the fifth) during the whole of April that year.
It also turned out to be the last Salon to enjoy official government sponsorship. Significant works included Jules Bastien-Lepage‘s magnificent Joan of Arc, and two paintings by Gustave Moreau: Helen, which has since vanished, and Galatea.
As usual, the critics had spent much of the past year recharging their stocks of vitriol for the occasion, and one painter who became their target was Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), a winner of the Prix de Rome who, at the age of fifty-six, surely deserved better. Only two years previously, he had won his third Grande Médaille d’Honneur of the Salon, was a highly respected professor at the École des Beaux-Arts, and had taught the young Bastien-Lepage among many others who were exhibiting at that Salon. Maybe there was an element of revenge for the period in the 1860s when he and Bouguereau had driven the Impressionists out of the Salon into the Salon des Refusés.
Cabanel exhibited his large canvas of Phaedra (1880), showing a lugubrious young woman spread languidly across a couch. To accompany it, the programme offered the following lines from Euripides’ play Hippolytus:
Consumed with love’s sorrow, Phaedra has locked herself in her palace. A delicate veil covers her head. This is the third day she has gone without food as she is intent on ending her wretched existence.
The critics found Cabanel’s painting lacklustre and confusing, considered that showing Phaedra in this weak state was unbefitting, and that the work’s composition was boring.
Looking at this painting now, I think it was the critics who were short of lustre, and had thought only superficially about the subject and Cabanel’s depiction.
Phaedra’s story is told by Euripides in that play, from which Racine had written a well-known French play, and which was partially retold by Ovid in the fourth letter in his Heroides. It centres on incest, suicide, and violent death, which might have been controversial themes for the Salon and its critics.
At this time, Phaedra was married to Theseus. He was the son of Aegeus, a primordial king of Athens, and had earlier killed the Minotaur on Crete. He did that with the help of the king of Crete’s daughter Ariadne, who had fallen in love with him; when the couple eloped to the island of Naxos, Theseus had abandoned her there to return to Athens.
Theseus had raped the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta, and they had a son named Hippolytus. Later, after Hippolyta’s death, Theseus married Ariadne’s younger sister Phaedra, and had two sons by her. When he grew up, Hippolytus became devoted to Artemis (and had sworn chastity in her honour) instead of following Aphrodite, as a result of which Aphrodite made Phaedra, his stepmother, fall in love with her stepson.
The marriage of Theseus and Phaedra brought together two houses which seemed blighted. Theseus’ father had committed suicide when he mistakenly thought that his son’s mission to kill the Minotaur had failed, throwing himself into the sea which now bears his name (the Aegean). Theseus was an inveterate adulterer whose life strayed from one sexual adventure to the next. Phaedra’s mother Pasiphaë had been impregnated by a bull and then gave birth to the Minotaur, and her father the king of Crete was murdered by being scalded in a bath.
At the time of these events, Theseus, Phaedra and Hippolytus were in voluntary exile at Troezen, a town to the southwest of Athens, on the opposite side of the Saronic Gulf, where Aethra, Theseus’ mother, had conceived him after having sex with both her husband Aegeus and Poseidon on the same night. Theseus had exiled himself after murdering a local king and his sons.
As a result of Aphrodite’s wrath with Hippolytus, Phaedra had fallen in love with her stepson, and at first intended to die with her honour intact. It is this scene which Cabanel chose to paint, and this point at which Ovid’s fictional letter in his Heroides would have been written.
Euripides’ play then tells of a plan by Phaedra’s nurse to save her mistress’s life by telling Hippolytus in secret of his stepmother’s love, and suggesting that they consummate the relationship, which is the proposal argued in Phaedra’s letter in Heroides. This puts to Hippolytus the suggestion that society was becoming more tolerant of such relationships, and that incest wasn’t so immoral after all.
Hippolytus rejects the proposal in a fury, and threatens to tell Theseus of the situation. Phaedra realises that she has no other option, and hangs herself. But when her body is discovered, no one can explain to Theseus the reason, as all are sworn to secrecy. Theseus then discovers a letter on Phaedra’s body which claims that Hippolytus raped her.
Theseus calls upon his father Poseidon to avenge Phaedra’s death on Hippolytus; because Hippolytus is still bound by his oath of secrecy, he cannot defend himself to his father, and is sent into exile. He then travels off in his chariot, but his horses are spooked by a bull roaring out from the sea – Poseidon’s response to Theseus. Hippolytus falls from his chariot and is dragged behind it, and lies dying from his wounds.
With Theseus glad that Phaedra has been avenged, Artemis appears to him and tells him the bitter truth, which devastates Theseus. In the last moments of the play, Hippolytus forgives his father, they are reconciled, and Hippolytus dies.
There were alternative accounts, including one version in which Phaedra and Hippolytus survive to the point where they put their cases to Theseus, as shown in this painting by an unknown artist.
Cabanel’s painting cannot tell the whole story, but captures Phaedra’s situation brilliantly. She is and should be lugubrious, staring into space wondering how she can possibly resolve her love for her stepson. Interestingly, Cabanel’s model for Phaedra was the wife of a well-known banker, who was perhaps well-placed to imagine the emotional turmoil taking place in such opulent surroundings.
He also leaves some cryptic clues to details. At the opposite side of the painting from Phaedra’s unblinking stare is her tearful nurse, soon to play her role in the tragedy. Behind the nurse, and lit by an oil lamp keeping vigil on the wall, are a helmet, sword and shield. Do they belong to her husband or to her stepson? Do they signify her previous relationship with Theseus, or could they be relics from the future event of the death of Hippolytus?
Cabanel painted his eloquent and faithful account of a story which had been told in words or music by Euripides, Virgil, Ovid, Apollodorus, Seneca, Chaucer (The Legende of Goode Women, 1385-86), Spenser (The Faerie Queene, 1590), Ben Jonson (1623), Racine (1676), Jean de la Fontaine (1683), Rameau (1733), Gluck (1745), Voltaire (1775), Schiller (1805), Schubert (1826), Robert Browning (1843), Swinburne (1866), and Massenet (1873). Although several paintings have been made of the death of Hippolytus, Cabanel’s is almost the only one to tell Phaedra’s story.
If only Phaedra had heeded the advice given by the great conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961), who said:
Try everything once except incest and folk dancing.