Poseidon (Greek Ποσειδῶν), who becomes the Roman Neptune, was the son of the primordial deities Kronos and Rhea, making him a brother of Zeus and Hera, and one of the senior deities of Olympus. The god of the waters – both fresh water and salt – he’s strongly associated with the sea, its storms, and earthquakes. Possibly through archaic associations, he’s also the god most associated with the horse. His characteristic attribute is the trident, a three-pronged spear, and he often appears with dolphins and fish, and occasionally with composites based on horses and sea creatures.
In paintings, Poseidon is almost invariably represented as the Old Man of the Sea: a jolly old mariner with long, flowing white hair and beard, his chariot being towed through the sea by dolphins or horses. In myth, though, there are darker stories in which he is more vengeful and destructive.
Pellegrino Tibaldi’s figure of Neptune (1549-51) shows Poseidon in his role in the story of Odysseus.
John Singleton Copley’s painting of The Return of Neptune (1754) was made after an original by Simon François Ravenet and Andrea Casali, and is a typical assembly of most of the god’s attributes and associations, with the exception of his partner.
Jacob Jordaens’ Neptune and Amphitrite in the Storm from 1644 includes Amphitrite, Poseidon’s wife and the Queen of the Seas. As one of the daughters of Nereus and Doris, she is a Nereid. When she sings to Poseidon her voice calms his raging storms and brings peace to the waters, and here is associated with the rainbow which might follow a squall.
Walter Crane’s Neptune’s Horses from 1892 is one of a series of paintings which he made fusing the horses drawing Poseidon’s chariot with breaking waves, themselves popularly known in English as white horses.
Poseidon is involved with several key myths. The best-known tells of Andromeda, the beautiful daughter of the King and Queen of the North African kingdom of Aethiopia. Her mother, Cassiopeia, was so proud that she boasted that Andromeda was more beautiful than even the Nereids, who often accompanied Poseidon. The latter decided to punish Cassiopeia for this arrogance, and sent Cetus, a sea monster, to ravage the coast of North Africa including Aethiopia.
The king was told by an oracle that the only way to be rid of Cetus was to sacrifice Andromeda to it. She was therefore stripped and chained to a rock on the coast, abandoned for Cetus to devour her, from where she was rescued by Perseus.
Poseidon was also involved in the dispute over the naming of the city of Athens.
René-Antoine Houasse’s Dispute between Minerva and Neptune over the Naming of the City of Athens from about 1689-1706 is a powerful pictorial retelling of this legend. At the end of the year, Athena and Poseidon agreed to a competition in which each would give the Athenians a gift; the one preferred by the citizens would determine which of the deities would form the name of the city.
Poseidon struck the earth with his trident and brought forth a spring, but it provided salt rather than fresh water. Athena offered an olive tree, which was deemed the winner, hence the city became known as Athens in her honour. Poseidon was so upset by his defeat that he flooded the Attic Plain to punish the Athenians.
Poseidon came close to destroying the original Achaian city of Troy. Apollo had gone to Laomedon’s kingdom, where he found the king struggling to build the great walls of the first city of Troy. Apollo and Poseidon agreed to lend a hand, to make his task more possible. But when the walls were complete, Laomedon denied striking a bargain to repay the gods for their labour, and Poseidon responded by flooding the city.
In a scene reminiscent of Andromeda being offered for sacrifice to the sea-monster Cetis, Laomedon’s daughter Hesione was chained to rocks to await her grizzly fate. When she was rescued by Heracles, Laomedon again welshed on his debt, so Heracles gave Hesione to Telamon.
One of the few works showing the story of Laomedon is thought to have been painted by Joachim von Sandrart and Girolamo Troppa in the late seventeenth century. Its close-cropped figures show Laomedon Refusing Payment to Poseidon and Apollo. The youthful Apollo holds his hand out at the left, while behind him the much older Poseidon leans forward next to his trident.
Poseidon appears in two more complex mythological works.
Nicolas Poussin’s The Birth of Venus (1635-36) is controversial, as there is no general agreement as to what it is actually about, nor the goddess at the centre of the canvas.
One reading maintains that its current title is correct, and the central goddess is Venus/Aphrodite, who has just been born from sea foam. To the left is clearly Poseidon, bearing his trident, and astride his horses. In the far distance, riding on the clouds, Venus’ chariot is being towed towards her by swans. There are other figures to identify, but one man in the distance at the left edge looks quite similar to Poseidon, and could well be his son, The Old Man of the Sea, Proteus.
An alternative interpretation is that it is not Venus at the centre, but the sea nymph Galatea, being drawn on a chariot of cockleshells by a school of dolphins.
There is another, much more recent painting which appears to have been influenced by Poussin: William Dyce’s remarkable fresco in Queen Victoria’s holiday palace on the Isle of Wight, Osborne House.
In Dyce’s Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea (1847), Poseidon stands astride his three white seahorses (with fish tails!), holding their reins in his right hand, and passing his crown with the left. The crown is just about to be transferred by Hermes (with wings on his cap) to the gold-covered figure of Britannia, who holds a ceremonial silver trident in her right hand. Poseidon is supported by his entourage in the sea, including a statutory brace of nudes and conch-blowers. At the right, Britannia’s entourage is more serious in intent, and includes the lion of England, and figures representing industry, trade, and navigation.
This depiction of Poseidon, and much of the left half of the painting, has more than a passing resemblance to Poussin’s. But look into the distance, below Hermes and behind Poseidon, and there’s an Old Man of the Sea with two nymphs. Could that also be Proteus, perhaps?
Poseidon, like his brother Zeus, had a seemingly endless list of lovers, including many sea nymphs, Medusa (making Poseidon father of Pegasus), Demeter and Aphrodite. He was also invoked in allegorical paintings of more modern cities with strong maritime affiliations.
In Tiepolo’s Neptune Offering Gifts to Venice from about 1745, it’s Poseidon who is the benefactor of Venice. What this painting doesn’t say is whether it was also he who was responsible for winter storms in the Adriatic.