The little that we know of Sappho is, like the little that remains of her poetry, scant and fragmentary. She was arguably the greatest classical Greek lyrical poet, a lesbian of renown, but was alleged to have thrown herself from a cliff when a male lover left her.
Dearth of information about her, and its apparent inconsistency, has not stopped a wealth of writing about her, and her appearance in a great many paintings, few of which are consistent with her sexuality. Here I will consider one text, the fictional letter written for her by Ovid in his Heroides (Heroines), and a selection of the many paintings of her.
Born around 630 BCE into a wealthy family on the Greek island of Lesbos, legend has associated her romantically with two men: a contemporary poet, Alcaeus, and Phaon a local ferryman. Her own name and that of her island have been associated with her sexuality since the late nineteenth century, and Ovid makes it clear that her love of women was well-known among Romans in his time.
Since around 300 BCE, there has been a legend that tells of her love for Phaon the ferryman, who plied the waters between Lesbos and the Anatolian mainland. Almost certainly illiterate and hardly a good audience for Sappho’s verse, Phaon’s redeeming feature was apparently the gift of great physical beauty. He was given this one day when he carried Venus/Aphrodite in his boat; the goddess was travelling in disguise as an old woman, Phaon did not charge her for the crossing, so she returned the favour by transforming Phaon’s physical appearance.
Ovid’s description of Sappho’s affair with Phaon leaves little to the imagination, even down to their lovemaking.
Among those who seem to have accepted the truth of this legend was Jacques-Louis David, in this painting of Sappho and Phaon from 1809. David was necessarily not as explicit as Ovid, showing the couple fawning over one another with their recently-occupied bed behind them, and a post-orgasmic gaze on Sappho’s face. In case you haven’t got the message, Cupid holds her lyre, and two doves peck affectionately on the window sill.
A little deeper into Victorian prudery, Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Sappho (1881) shows Sappho resting on a lectern and staring intently at Alcaeus, who is playing a lyre. She is supported by her ‘school of girls’, one of whom rests her arm on Sappho’s back. The artist’s hints at a lesbian interpretation are necessarily subtle: the marble benches bear the names of some of her (female) lovers.
Yet nearly twenty years earlier, Simeon Solomon was far more open in his watercolour of Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864). Sappho is shown on the right, her dark hair and complexion in accordance with Ovid’s description. Although Erinna, another woman poet of the time, might have joined Sappho in her community of young women on Lesbos, she is now thought to have lived on the island of Telos, slightly later too.
Solomon’s career was all but destroyed by his own sexuality: a brave pioneer of homosexual themes in his painting, he was arrested for homosexual offences in 1873, and was shunned thereafter.
Ovid’s fictional letter from Sappho to Phaon was written after the legendary ferryman moved to Sicily. It is unusual among the Heroides for depicting a real, historical figure, albeit in this legendary story.
The letter can be read in at least two ways. It could, in spite of its multiple clear references to Sappho’s lesbian lifestyle, be just another male denial of female homosexuality. This seems unlikely for many reasons, not least of which is the gross implausibility of everything about the letter. This has led some to doubt that Ovid even wrote it – an issue which remains hotly debated.
Ovid shows profound and progressive insights into human sexuality; if this letter was written by him, it comes over as an excellent debunking of the legend of Phaon, and a witty and irreverent commentary on the life and loves of another great poet.
The story of Sappho and Phaon has, however, stuck. Its climax, in which the broken-hearted Sappho throws herself from the top of the Leucadian Cliff, became an extremely popular motif in nineteenth century painting.
Pierre-Narcisse Guérin paints a portrait of Sappho looking in sad reflection, her head resting on a symbolic lyre. There is little to indicate that she is on the top of cliffs, apart from the title, and no narrative references.
Théodore Chassériau’s watercolour of Sappho Leaping into the Sea from the Leucadian Promontory (c 1840) shows her clutching her lyre, her arms braced across her chest, as she steps off the edge of the Leucadian Cliff.
Sappho’s suicide became something of an obsession for Gustave Moreau, who painted her repeatedly between about 1870 and 1893.
Moreau’s Death of Sappho was probably in progress when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and was not completed until after order was restored to Paris the following year. It shows the poet moments after she had thrown herself from the Leucadian cliffs, her body lying in peaceful repose, her lyre beside her, and a seagull in mourning. The contrast between the elaborate decoration of her body, clothing, and lyre and the stark rocks and gloomy sea and sky could not be greater.
Sappho (1871-72) was Moreau’s second painting of her, this time a richly-detailed watercolour. Here she is swooning over her lover shortly before she flung herself to her doom. Her lyre is slung over her shoulder, and to emphasise her status as a great poet, Apollo’s gryphon is shown on a column behind her. Her elaborately-decorated clothing and pose were taken from a Japanese woodcut, Genji taking the air in summer on the Sumida by Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III), which Moreau had bought in Paris.
Moreau returned to his consideration of the suicide of Sappho in this watercolour of Sappho at the Leucadian Cliff (c 1885), showing her clinging to her lyre as she falls to her death on the rocks below. This is lit by one of Moreau’s saturnine suns.
In Moreau’s late oil painting of Sappho from about 1893, she is seen stepping off the cliff, with the sun setting behind her.
During this period, those influenced by Moreau also painted the poet. Jules-Élie Delaunay’s undated Sappho Embracing her Lyre shows her at the top of the cliff holding her lyre close, as if it were her lover.
Ary Renan painted Sappho at least twice. The first from 1893 appears influenced by Moreau’s paintings. Sappho reclines amid a fantastic and deep layer of vegetation, her lyre some distance from her head, at the right edge. This appears to be underwater, after she had jumped from the cliff.
Renan’s later painting shows her just as she has stepped off the top of the cliff, and is about to plunge to her death. She holds her lyre aloft in her left hand, as a surprised seagull flies past.
Ovid’s letter, written two millenia ago, shows with wit how absurd the legend of Sappho and Phaon is. Yet so many artists since have continued to depict it in paint, perpetuating its naïve denial.