The three Charites (Greek Χάριτες, pronounced kʰáritɛs, and plural of Charis Χάρις) are three sister goddesses associated with all the better aspects of human nature, including beauty, charm, creativity and goodwill, hence collectively known in English as the Graces, or in Latin as Gratiae. They’re most commonly considered to be further offspring from one of Zeus’s many extra-marital relationships, this time with the Oceanid Eurynome, although some claim their parents are Dionysus and Aphrodite.
They’re most commonly named as Aglaea (representing splendor), Euphrosyne (mirth), and Thalia (good cheer). By Homer’s time, they had become part of the retinue of Aphrodite, and appear to have a relationship with Hermes (Mercury) which is ill-defined. In visual art they typically appear as a threesome, usually dancing together in an inward-facing ring which normally places one with her back to the viewer. They’re often accessories to other action, and on occasion may simply be an excuse to add three nude females.
They are prominent in Botticelli’s huge tempera painting Primavera (Spring) from around 1482, where they look at Hermes, and Eros targets one of them with his bow and arrow. Two bear distinctive pendants at their breast, which might enable their identities to be distinguished, but I haven’t found anyone prepared to go into such detail.
They reappear in one of Jacopo Tintoretto’s four mythological paintings for the Atrio Quadrato in Venice’s Palazzo Ducale, made in 1578.
In Mercury and the Three Graces Hermes, the messenger of the gods, is behind at the left. This composition is dominated by diagonals, which give the whole image a marked lean to the left, which may have been appropriate for its original location.
In or just before 1614, Rubens made this oil sketch of Venus Mourning Adonis, a composition made more complex by the addition of three Graces, and the young Eros at the right.
Rubens’ finished painting of The Death of Adonis was completed in 1614, and retains that composition. A rather portly Aphrodite cradles her lover’s head (today you might even think that she knew about airway management!), as the Graces weep in grief with her. Rubens has been generous with the young man’s blood, which is splashed around his crotch, and spills out onto the ground, where the hounds are sniffing it. The fateful spear rests under Adonis’s legs.
The following year, Rubens collaborated with Jan Brueghel the Elder in their Nature Adorning the Three Graces (c 1615), where they are seen feting a term with about eight pairs of breasts, who Gombrich identified as the Ephesian Diana. This follows tradition in that one of the three has turned her back to the viewer.
Antoine-François Callet maintained the association between the Graces and Spring in this allegory from about 1781. There’s no shortage of figures, with Flora at its centre, her breasts bared, and a rather effeminate Zephyrus under her left arm. At the lower right are the three Graces, dancing with their hands held high, but at the lower left is the goddess of the harvest Demeter, in her chariot drawn by lions. With her daughter Persephone, Demeter was often allied with Flora in their common association with plant growth and fertility.
The trio appear in one of the most mysterious mythological paintings of the nineteenth century, where they are again associated with Aphrodite.
Edward Poynter’s A Visit to Aesculapius (1880) is an unusual motif. Although this image makes it appear to be a nocturne, this is probably darkening because of aged varnish and dirt: contemporary prints (below) suggest it is actually set in normally-lit daytime. Asclepius, god of medicine and the healing arts, sits at the left, contemplating the left foot of Aphrodite, which has a thorn in it. She is attended by doves, her attributes, and the three Graces as her handmaidens.
Poynter arrays the Graces in classical manner, with one turning her back to the viewer, and reaching her right arm out to the figure of Hygeia, daughter of Asclepius and the goddess of health and sanitation, who is drawing water from the fountain at the right. Shown at the lower edge of the painting is the staff of Asclepius, around which a snake is entwined. That is not to be confused with the caduceus of Hermes (Trismegistus), which has two snakes intertwined.
John William Waterhouse returned to a more conventional seasonal theme.
In his Flora and the Zephyrs, from 1898, Flora sits, arms raised, to the right of centre as Zephyrus kisses her right arm from above. With her are the three Graces, who rather than dancing together are gathering the flowers to braid into their hair. Other winds are seen over the treetops. I apologise for the poor quality of this image.
The Graces have appeared in some even less conventional mythological paintings, including – as statues – in Edward Burne-Jones series titled Pygmalion and the Image. He did this twice, once between 1868-70, and again in 1878. These helped secure Burne-Jones’ position as one of Britain’s leading artists.
In The Heart Desires (1878), Burne-Jones shows Pygmalion in his celibacy before his statue came to life. In the left background are Propoetides, or other women engaged in similar debauchery. They are echoed by and contrasted with Pygmalion’s statues of the three Graces on the right. He stands alone, pondering his next sculpture, which turned out to be that of his future wife.
Finally, the name of the Three Graces has been bestowed on one notable group of women, by the Pre-Raphaelite men. They were Maria Zambaco and her two cousins Aglaia Coronio and Marie Spartali, who later married to become Marie Spartali Stillman.
All three appear in Burne-Jones’ The Mill (1882). Shown from left to right are Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali Stillman, and Aglaia Coronio. They are arranged in the traditional manner, holding hands in a ring, but with two of them turned to face away from the viewer. Burne-Jones had a very public affair with Maria Zambaco which reached a crisis in 1869 when he tried to leave his wife to live with her. She tried to convince him to join her in a suicide pact, taking an overdose of laudanum by the canal in London’s Little Venice. The police had to be called, and what was already quite a public scandal become the talk of London.
Who thought that the Classical goddesses had lost their power over men?