Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 0 Introduction to a new series

Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891), Caesar and His Fortune (Caesar in the Boat) (1855), oil on canvas, 114 x 146.5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Image by VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Literary sources were (and still are) crucial to a great many artists. Until the late twentieth century, most had been thoroughly educated in the Classics and the Bible. Most studios and workshops contained bookshelves with key reference works, including the Bible, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Plutarch’s Lives (or Parallel Lives).

Patrons who wished to select a motif for their purchase from the painter could choose from the thousands of stories contained in those books. The details of the narrative to be painted could be checked before the first studies were drawn. And finally, on delivery, the artist could expound the virtues and fidelity of their work.

Having just completed my account in paintings of the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and his less well-known Heroides, I now turn to its successor, Plutarch’s Lives.

The Lives are a unique resource compiled by one of the finest Greek writers of classical times. Plutarch attempted to combine history, biography, and moral philosophy by writing them in pairs, one Greek, the other Roman, and appending a comparison. As history they vary in quality and reliability, but provide some of the best source material on the history of Sparta, as well as several lives including Antonius, Pompey, and Caesar.

As biography they bring to life some remarkable characters who might otherwise have vanished into the past, including Themistocles, Alcibiades, Cato, and Alexander. Although Plutarch’s moralistic comparisons might seem strained at times, they too are generally insightful and historically significant.

Most importantly for the artist they provided a repertoire of characters and events with which every educated person would have been familiar – much as with the better-known Bible narratives, and the myths of the Metamorphoses. With the decline of the classics, though, the majority of Plutarch’s figures have become forgotten and unfamiliar. How many people now know who Alcibiades was, or have more than a passing acquaintance with the turbulent life of Theseus?

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Young Spartans Exercising (c 1860), oil on canvas, 109.5 x 155 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924), London. Image courtesy of and © The National Gallery.

Edgar Degas’ famous painting of Young Spartans Exercising from about 1860 includes two important details in its background: Mount Taygetus, at the left behind the group of girls, and at its centre a group of women talking with a man wearing white robes. Without knowing Degas’ literary reference to Plutarch’s biography of Lycurgus, this is an almost impenetrable painting, and easily misread.

Mount Taygetus was the place where the feeble babies born to Spartan families were abandoned, so as to ensure that the only children who survived were those who would make the best elite warriors or mothers, according to their gender.

The old man in the white robes is Lycurgus himself, who, while refusing to become Sparta’s king, laid down its rules and institutions, including those governing the abandonment of babies. Most relevant here is that it was Lycurgus who introduced the teaching of wrestling to Spartan girls, which has empowered the girls here to taunt the boys opposite.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia (1835-45), oil on canvas, 32.8 x 41.2 cm, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

Eugène Delacroix here shows Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia (1835-45), in which the lawgiver visited the Oracle at Delphi before implementing his reforms to the Spartan state. Pythia, the high priestess at Delphi, is here listening intently to Lycurgus as he describes his proposals, before giving her verdict on them.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Romulus’ Victory over Acron, (1812), tempera on canvas, 276 x 530 cm, École des Beaux Arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Ingres’ painting of Romulus’ Victory over Acron (1812) shows an episode taken straight from Plutarch’s account of the life of Romulus. After the rape of the Sabine women, in which the early Romans attempted to rectify their desperate shortage of women, it was Acron, king of the neighbouring Caeninenses tribe, who waged retaliatory war on the Romans under Romulus.

Before battle, Romulus made a vow that, if he should conquer and overthrow Acron, he would carry home the king’s armour and dedicate it in person to Jupiter. Ingres here shows him doing just that, as he carries Acron’s golden suit of armour. In the background, Acron’s city is in flames, and his army annihilated.

Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891), Caesar and His Fortune (Caesar in the Boat) (1855), oil on canvas, 114 x 146.5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Image by VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jules-Élie Delaunay shows one of the most memorable moments from Plutarch’s account of the life of Julius Caesar, in his Caesar and His Fortune of 1855. During the civil war fought between Caesar and Pompey, in 49 BCE, Caesar crossed the Rubicon (a phrase which has entered English and other languages) as he drove Pompey from Italy.

When Pompey fled to Greece, Caesar tried to pursue him, and is here attempting to cross the straits of Brindisi disguised as a slave. His boat was caught in a storm, though, and forced to turn back. According to Plutarch, Caesar tried to reassure his companions of their safety, by telling them: Fear not, you are carrying Caesar and his fortune.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Antiochus and Stratonica (1774), oil on canvas, 120 x 155 cm, École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1774, Jacques-Louis David competed unsuccessfully for the prestigious Prix de Rome, which that year had set the story of Antiochus and Stratonica as its subject, taken straight from Plutarch’s life of Demetrius.

When Antiochus’ father, King Seleucus I of Syria, was relatively old, he married the young and beautiful Stratonice (or Stratonica). Antiochus fell mysteriously ill, and was confined to his bed as a result. The eminent anatomist and physician Erasistratus was summoned to assess the young man, and recognised that he had fallen in love with Stratonice, his stepmother.

David shows Antiochus propped up in bed, Erasistratus (in a red cloak) by him and pointing to the beautiful Stratonice at the foot of the bed. Little is shown in facial expressions, apart from Stratonice’s bashful expression with her eyes cast down. Body language and composition combine to tell the story, with Erasistratus’ pointing index finger helping to put Stratonice metaphorically and literally in the spotlight.

Jean-Charles Nicaise Perrin (1754–1831) (attr) or Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809) (school of), The Wounded Alcibiades (1743-1800), oil on canvas, 53.5 × 90.5 cm, Wellcome Library (Bequeathed by Henry Solomon Wellcome 1936), London. By courtesy of the Wellcome Library, via Wikimedia Commons.

Most of Plutarch’s characters reveal the frailties of humans. Alcibiades was a major statesman and general, shown undergoing surgery on the battlefield in The Wounded Alcibiades (1743-1800) above. It remains unclear whether that was painted by Jean-Charles Nicaise Perrin or one of Joseph-Marie Vien’s school.

But Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (1791) below is one of a succession of paintings which shows the general’s teacher, and apparently lover, Socrates dragging him away from a brothel, when he was a young man. Alcibiades couldn’t give up the company and pleasure of courtesans even after marriage: when his wife Hipparete started divorce proceedings against him, he dragged her away from the court, so ending the case.

Regnault (1754–1829), Socrates Tears Alcibiades
Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754–1829), Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (1791), oil on canvas, 46 x 68 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Plutarch’s Lives have not only been a great source and influence for artists, but have been instrumental in changing history. Charlotte Corday, who assassinated the French Revolutionary Marat in his bath – a scene painted by David and many others – was reputed to have strolled in her garden near Caen, her copy of Plutarch’s Lives in her hand as she decided what she had to do in Paris.

Tony Robert-Fleury (1837–1912), Charlotte Corday at Caen in 1793 (date not known), oil on canvas, 210 x 125 cm, Musée Bonnat-Helleu, Bayonne, France. Wikimedia Commons.

So she is shown here by Tony Robert-Fleury.

The books which make up what survives of Plutarch’s Lives, given in their pairs of Greek life – Roman life, are:

In the case of these paired lives, a summary of Plutarch’s comparison is given at the end of the second (Roman) biography.

There are also four additional lives, which remain unpaired:

  • Artaxerxes
  • Aratus
  • Galba
  • Otho

This series is now complete. Sadly, many of the Lives don’t have any accessible paintings which are appropriate. Those which do are linked to above. There are also two articles covering the best stories and their paintings:
From Theseus to Caius Marius
From Alexander the Great to Cato the Younger.

I hope that you enjoy them.