Characters in Painted Stories: 7 Tragedy, Orestes 1

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon (1817), oil on canvas, 342 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In this series looking at how characters in stories are portrayed, in the context of Christopher Booker’s analysis of literary narratives into The Seven Basic Plots, I have reached the sixth and most complex of his plots: Tragedy.

I’ve already analysed one of the classic tragedies identified by Booker as the basis for his archetypal plot, that of the legend of Daedalus. That simple story I found “is entirely consistent with Booker’s description of Tragedy, the heroic role of Icarus, and the five stages.” In this article and its sequel tomorrow, I take on a far grander narrative, that of the fall of Orestes, another classic identified by Booker in his chapters on the tragedy. Like Daedalus, Orestes has been a popular theme for paintings, and here I include some examples from classical times as well.

Orestes was the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and commander of the Greek forces during the Trojan War. His story is told in plays by three major authors, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; Aeschylus devoted a cycle of three plays, known as the Oresteia, and Euripides four plays in all. Inevitably the stories they tell differ considerably, and I will base my summary here largely on Aeschylus’ trilogy, as that appears to have been most accessible to artists.


Helen, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’, was conceived by Leda, who was the wife of the King of Sparta, Tyndareus, when Jupiter seduced her in the form of a swan. When she grew up, Helen married Menelaus, who succeeded her father as the King of Sparta, and the couple had a daughter named Hermione. Following the Judgment of Paris, Paris made off with Helen from Sparta, and took her back to Troy: an action which precipitated the war between Greece and its allies, and Troy. Paris was also known as Alexander.

With Helen already in Troy, Hermione’s father Menelaus left Sparta for the war against Troy, leaving their daughter in the care of Helen’s father, Tyndareus. He agreed for Hermione to marry Orestes, who was her cousin, being the son of Agamemnon, Menelaus’ brother. It seems likely that by the end of the Trojan War, Hermione and Orestes were living together as a couple.

While Menelaus was away fighting against Troy, he agreed that his daughter Hermione should marry Pyrrhus, who was also known as Neoptolemos, and was the son of the great Greek warrior Achilles (who was killed by Paris towards the end of the war). When Menelaus and Pyrrhus returned from the war, Menelaus implemented that marriage by taking Hermione away from Orestes, and giving her to Pyrrhus.

However, Pyrrhus had not returned alone from Troy; he had brought with him a concubine, Andromache, who had been the wife of Hector and mother of Astyanax. Achilles had killed Hector in the war, and Pyrrhus had (probably) thrown young Astyanax to his death from the walls of Troy during its sacking.

The arrival of Andromache and the enforced marriage to Pyrrhus were understandably very distressing to Hermione, who quickly developed a dislike of Andromache, which was mutual. Hermione accused Andromache of using sorcery to prevent her from conceiving a child by Pyrrhus, which might have strengthened her position, in return for which Andromache taunted Hermione for remaining childless. As a result, Hermione started to plot the murder of Andromache, her bitter rival.

Orestes visited Hermione, and the couple seized the opportunity to elope. Orestes then started to plot the murder of Pyrrhus, which would release Hermione from her enforced marriage. Although some accounts claim that it was Orestes who killed Pyrrhus, others claim that he was killed when he visited the oracle at Delphi, because he desecrated the temple there; either way, Pyrrhus was dead and Hermione was free to marry Orestes.

When Orestes’ father Agamemnon returned to his kingdom of Mycenae, he found that his wife, Clytemnestra, who was Helen’s (half-)sister, had made Aegisthus (who was Agamemnon’s cousin) her lover. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus then plotted the murder of Agamemnon, and although there is disagreement about which of them actually did the deed, the hero Agamemnon was then killed, and Aegisthus and Clytemnestra ruled Mycenae.

Back in Sparta, Orestes and Hermione had a son, Tisamenos. Eventually, after Aegisthus and Clytemnestra had had children of their own, Orestes returned to Mycenae, where he murdered Clytemnestra (his mother), Aegisthus, and their daughter (confusingly named Helen), in vengeance for the death of his father. Orestes returned to Sparta, and Hermione disappeared, probably dying. When Aletes, the surviving son of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, came of age, Orestes returned to Mycenae, killed Aletes (his half-brother), married Erigone, his half-sister, and assumed the throne.

The Oresteia

Aeschylus’ Oresteia is a trilogy of plays tracing the run of murders and tragedy in the lives of Agamemnon and his son, Orestes. These start before the first play, when the ‘fleet of a thousand ships’ is about to set sail for Troy. To ensure fair winds and weather, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia.

The first play, Agamemnon, tells of the return of the king to his wife, Clytemnestra, and her long-standing lover Aegisthus. They have been plotting to murder Agamemnon to avenge Iphigenia’s death, and secure the throne for Clytemnestra, which they do, also killing Cassandra his concubine.

Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, returns home in the second play, The Libation Bearers, to avenge his father’s death some years later. Orestes then concludes that play by murdering his own mother and her lover Aegisthus. The third play, The Eumenides (one of the euphemistic names for the Furies), opens with the Furies hunting Orestes down, haunting and tormenting him to drive him mad, because of these murders.

In classical times, Aeschylus’ plays were very popular – they won first prize at the Dionysia festival in 458 BCE – and they and their derivative dramas and texts remain so. Among the more notable derivatives are Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, and Sartre’s The Flies. Various scenes from the story were also quite frequently illustrated on pottery of the time.

The Oresteia were not a popular source of stories during the Renaissance, and the earliest post-classical work of art that I have been able to locate which shows Orestes and the Furies is from the end of the eighteenth century – two millenia after the painted pots shown below.


Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (1767-1824), The Meeting of Orestes and Hermione (c 1800), pen and brown and black ink, point of brush and brown and gray wash, with black chalk and graphite, heightened with white gouache on cream wove paper, 28.5 x 21.8 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art (Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund), Cleveland, OH. Courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art.

In Girodet’s ink and chalk drawing of The Meeting of Orestes and Hermione (c 1800), Hermione is seen at the right, her arms folded, looking coy as Orestes approaches her. The second woman, with Orestes, is presumably Hermione’s maid.

This drawing is one of a series of illustrations made by Girodet to accompany Racine’s play, and has subtleties which you might expect from a great narrative artist. Visible in the gap between the figures is a table-leg in the form not of a Fury (which might have foretold Orestes’ fate), but of a siren, implying that Hermione is luring Orestes to her. Hermione, for all her apparent coyness, has let the right shoulder-strap of her robe slip, in her enticement of Orestes. She has assumed the role of femme fatale, as portrayed by Euripides and Racine.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Andromache and Pyrrhus (1810), oil on canvas, 342 × 457 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by Janmad, via Wikimedia Commons.

Just a decade later, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin made two paintings exploring this story. In Andromache and Pyrrhus (1810), the central figures of Pyrrhus, seated on the throne, and Andromache, kneeling at his side and clutching her young son, are in conflict with two other women. It’s most likely that the figure at the right is Hermione, who is being displaced from her enforced role as Pyrrhus’ wife by Andromache.

The child is almost certainly Astyanax. Although some accounts tell that Pyrrhus threw the boy to his death from the walls of Troy, others, including Euripides, claim that Astyanax survived the sack of Troy, and accompanied his mother when she was taken as Pyrrhus’ concubine. When Hermione plotted the murder of Andromache, she included the killing of Astyanax.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833) Orestes Announces the Death of Pyrrhus to Hermione (c 1810), oil, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen, Caen, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Guérin’s Orestes Announces the Death of Pyrrhus to Hermione (c 1810) shows a scene described later in Euripides’ and Racine’s plays, in which Orestes has just murdered Pyrrhus at Delphi, and here tells Hermione of that death, by flourishing the sword which he used. Hermione is shocked, as is her maid standing behind her.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon (1817), oil on canvas, 342 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The story in Guérin’s next painting of doomed relationships, Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon (1817), is thankfully taken in part from Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and much clearer. Here he shows Clytemnestra about to kill her husband with a short sword while he is asleep in bed.

Unknown Artist, Meeting of Electra and Orestes at the Tomb of Agamemnon (340-330 BCE), Paestan red-figure bell-krater, Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España, Madrid. Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen, via Wikimedia Commons.

This depiction of the Meeting of Electra and Orestes at the Tomb of Agamemnon from 340-330 BCE shows Orestes meeting his sister Electra at their father’s tomb, variations of which have been shown in much more recent paintings too.

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon (1868-9), oil on canvas, 150 × 75.5 cm, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Frederic, Lord Leighton shows Electra in funereal black, beside what appears to be a substantial mausoleum. She is in profound grief, her brows knitted, her eyes closed, their lids puffy from tears. Her arms are thrust up behind her head, where her hands are pressed against the top of her head, in a ritual gesture as if tearing her hair.

Black Fury Painter, Orestes in the Sanctuary of Delphi (date not known), Crater, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples, Italy. Drawing (1859) by Karl Bötticher (1806–89), via Wikimedia Commons.

In this drawing of an undated krater in Naples, Orestes has been driven to seek sanctuary at Delphi, and in the top left is a black Fury pointing a snake towards the figures.

Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia 1766 by Benjamin West 1738-1820
Benjamin West (1738–1820), Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia (1766), oil on canvas, 100.3 x 126.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2017), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Benjamin West is claimed to have painted Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims before Iphigenia soon after his arrival in England. In this scene, Orestes and Pylades, his cousin, are prominent in the right foreground. They have been brought before Iphigenia, a priestess of Diana, prominent in the left foreground, who stands in judgement over them.

Following his matricide, Orestes was told by the Oracle at Delphi to make reparation by returning to Delphi the gold statue of Diana, seen in the distance slightly to the left of centre. In attempting to seize and remove that statue, Orestes was committing an act of sacrilege, for which he and Pylades are to be sacrificed on the low altar between the priestess and the young men.

Eumenides Painter (fl 380-370 BCE), Orestes being Purified by Apollo (380-370 BCE), Side A from an Apulian red-figure bell-krater, height 48.7 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by Bibi Saint-Pol, via Wikimedia Commons.

This Apulian red-figure bell-krater (380-370 BCE) shows a scene taken directly from Aeschylus: Orestes, in the centre and still clutching a murderous sword, is being purified by Apollo. Clytemnestra is trying to awaken the sleeping Furies, shown at the far left.

Tomorrow’s paintings concentrate on the climax, in which Orestes faces the Furies.


Christopher Booker (2004) The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories, Continuum. ISBN 9 780 826 45209 2