The Face that Launched a Thousand Artists: Helen (and Paris)

Gaston Bussière (1862–1928), Helen of Troy (1895), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Ursulines de Mâcon, Mâcon, France. Image by Vassil, via Wikimedia Commons.

After the Virgin Mary, Helen is probably the most famous and most frequently-painted woman. She is also one over whom there has been no consensus: was she abducted, seduced, or seducer? Victim or whore?

Ovid’s contribution to the debate comes in a pair of imaginary letters, the first from Paris to Helen, the second her reply, in his Heroides (Heroines). They are among his wittiest and most entertaining works, and skilfully leave it to the reader to decide the virtues and vices of the two figures, a solution which is much more difficult for the visual artist.

Both Helen and Paris had – even for legend – very peculiar origins.

Unknown follower of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Leda and the Swan (early 1500s), oil on panel, 131.1 × 76.2 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

This interpreted copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Leda and the Swan, probably painted in the early 1500s and now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, summarises Helen’s unique birth. The outcome of the union of Leda, wife of the king of Sparta, with Jupiter, in the form of a swan, Helen did not have a human birth, but hatched from an egg laid by her human mother. Some accounts claim that Leda had intercourse with both the swan and her husband Tyndareus on the same night, and produced one or two eggs containing Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux, as shown here.

When pregnant with him, Paris’s mother, Hecuba queen of Troy, dreamed that she gave birth to a flaming torch. This was interpreted as revealing that her child would be responsible for the destruction of Troy by fire, so he was abandoned on Mount Ida to die. He was rescued and raised by country folk, and was eventually welcomed back into the royal household.

Léon Cogniet (1794–1880), Helen Delivered by Castor and Pollux (1817), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. By VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

When still under age (according to most accounts), the beautiful Helen was abducted by Theseus (the ‘hero’ who abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos). Helen’s brothers were not happy with that, so paid Theseus a visit and persuaded him to return the girl. Léon Cogniet’s Helen Delivered by Castor and Pollux (1817), which secured the artist the Prix de Rome, shows her rescue.

In return for her son’s offence, Aethra, mother of Theseus, was made a slave of Helen, and was not freed until after the fall of Troy many years later. During that time, Helen’s beauty only grew, and her hand was sought by many suitors in a contest organised by her brothers Castor and Pollux. Among those suitors were many prominent figures, including Odysseus.

Helen’s father, King Tyndareus, feared that in choosing between her suitors he would offend and cause trouble. The suitors therefore agreed to swear an oath, under which they would all defend the successful suitor in the event that anyone should quarrel with them – this was the crucial Oath of Tyndareus. Under that, Menelaus, king of Sparta, was chosen as Helen’s husband, and the couple later had a daughter, Hermione, and possibly sons too.

Paris’s nemesis came with the Judgement of Paris, the beauty contest which resulted from the Apple of Discord being put between Juno (Hera), Minerva (Athena), and Venus (Aphrodite). Venus successfully bribed Paris with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world (Helen, still married to Menelaus), and was awarded the apple. Paris then had to claim his prize, and suffer the wrath of Juno and Minerva.

Given its importance to subsequent events (the Trojan War) and the whole story, you might have expected clarity over how Helen and Paris became partners. Instead, there are multiple and conflicting accounts which leave everything in doubt.

Francesco Primaticcio (1504–1570), The Rape of Helen (c 1530-39), oil on canvas, 155 × 188 cm, Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Most of the early paintings, such as Primaticcio’s The Rape of Helen from about 1530-39, show Paris abducting Helen against her will. Here, a youthful Paris is carrying her from the city of Sparta into one of his ships, ready to sail off to Troy with his prize.

Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World (1535), oil on canvas, 147.3 x 383.5 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

Maerten van Heemskerck’s magnificent Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World (1535) puts the same story into a world-view panorama which includes classical ‘wonders’ such as the Colossus of Rhodes. Helen is here part of a small raid on Sparta in which various other prizes are also being taken.

Tintoretto (1519–1594), The Rape of Helen (1580), oil on canvas, 186 x 307 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

For Tintoretto, The Rape of Helen (1580) was nothing short of war. As an archer is about to shoot his arrow, and another Trojan fends off attackers with a pike, Helen, dressed in her finery, is manhandled onto Paris’s ship like a stolen statue.

Guido Reni (1575–1642), The Rape of Helen (c 1626-29), oil on canvas, 253 x 265 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

By the seventeenth century, the story shown in paintings was starting to change. Guido Reni’s The Rape of Helen, from about 1626-29, shows Paris leading Helen away with her maids and courtiers in attendance. She doesn’t look at all happy, and is far from willing, and Cupid stands with a finger raised as if to say that he will be using his bow very shortly.

Juan de la Corte (1597–1660), The Rape of Helen (c 1620-50), oil on canvas, 150 × 222 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Juan de la Corte’s The Rape of Helen (c 1620-50) is also a bit more ambiguous. Helen is being grasped around her waist by one of the Trojans, but seems to have resigned herself to her fate.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), Helen Brought to Paris (1776), oil on canvas, 143.3 x 198.3 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

By 1776, when Benjamin West painted Helen Brought to Paris, this has started to look very consensual, if still a seduction by Paris. As Paris kneels before her in supplication, Venus and her son Cupid draw the figure of Helen towards him. Note how Helen is wearing predominantly white clothing, and unlike Venus shows but a modest amount of flesh.

Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), Venus Persuading Helen to Fall in Love with Paris (1790), oil on canvas, 102 × 127.5 cm, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

A few years later, Angelica Kauffman pursues a very similar line in her Venus Persuading Helen to Fall in Love with Paris (1790). So maybe Paris didn’t have to abduct Helen after all, but Venus and Cupid had to persuade the queen to allow herself to be seduced.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Love of Helen and Paris (1788), oil on canvas, 146 × 181 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by Livioandronico2013, via Wikimedia Commons.

For Jacques-Louis David, it was all about The Love of Helen and Paris (1788). The couple pose in front of their bed with its rumpled sheets. He is naked and playing his lyre, his cheeks flushed. She wears diaphanous clothing which has slipped off her right shoulder, and her cheeks are distinctly flushed too. Watching over them is a small statue of Venus.

In the late nineteenth century, fewer paintings showed Helen and Paris together, and Helen became the more popular subject for portraits.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Helen of Troy (1863), oil on panel, 31.1 × 26.7 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Helen of Troy (1863) shows her against an almost suppressed background of Troy burning. Both her hands grasp a pendant at her neck, of a firebrand, which can only be a reference to Paris and his symbolism in his mother’s dream.

Gaston Bussière (1862–1928), Helen of Troy (1895), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Ursulines de Mâcon, Mâcon, France. Image by Vassil, via Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast, Gaston Bussière’s Helen of Troy (1895) poses against a backdrop of Troy before its fall, modelled after the great ancient cities of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. She wears an elaborate headdress with a band of peacock feathers, and her abundant jewellery is flashy rather than regal, more typical of a courtesan than the head of court.

Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919), Helen of Troy (1898), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, De Morgan Centre, Guildford, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Evelyn de Morgan’s Helen of Troy (1898) admires herself in a mirror, the back of which bears the image of Venus. Around her are white and red roses for love, and five white doves, two of which are ‘courting’. In the distance are the lofty towers of the fortified city of Troy.

Ovid portrays Paris as naïve and inept, desparate to impress Helen despite the fact that Venus has already promised her to him. She comes across as far more experienced, and obviously duplicitous. At this stage, with her husband away visiting Crete, she has already let her dress slip to show Paris her breasts. In her reply to Paris, she reveals that she is in love with him and prepared to have a clandestine affair. However, she portrays herself as a virtuous wife who is inexperienced at adultery, and skilfully leads Paris to his death, and the destruction of Troy.

Léon Cogniet (1794–1880), Oenone Refuses to Rescue Paris at the Siege of Troy (1816), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Fécamp, France. By VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cogniet painted Helen in the margins of his Oenone Refuses to Rescue Paris at the Siege of Troy (1816), his first and unsuccessful entry for the Prix de Rome. Oenone had been Paris’s first wife, who seems to have been overlooked in many of the accounts of Helen and Paris. As he lies dying from his wound from Philoctetes’ poisoned arrow during the Trojan War, Paris looks imploringly towards Oenone.

She, though, has refused to try to heal him with her herbal arts, has turned her back on him, and walks away, leaving him to the care of Helen, who stands at the right edge wearing her golden crown.

Myth and legend are similarly undecided as to Helen’s ultimate fate, following the fall of Troy. Homer has her return to Menelaus in Sparta, and resume her former role as queen and mother, almost as if nothing had happened. Perhaps Euripides was closer to the truth in his Trojan Women, where she is shunned by the other women who survived the fall of Troy, and is eventually taken back to Greece to face a death penalty for her actions.

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), Helen at the Scaean Gate (c 1880), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau’s Helen at the Scaean Gate (c 1880) shows her faceless, and standing amid the smoking ruins and rubble, which is perhaps the best place to leave her.


Wikipedia’s lengthy and well-referenced article about Helen.