Characters in Painted Stories: 8 Tragedy, Orestes 2

In the first of these two articles looking at the story of Orestes, in the context of Booker’s archetypal plot for tragedy, I looked at paintings showing the background leading to Orestes’ matricide and the murders of Aegisthus, his mother’s lover, their daughter Helen, and those of Pyrrhus and Aletes.

The third play in Aeschylus’ trilogy, 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. It is this which has attracted so many painters to this story.

Louis Lafitte (1770–1829), Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1790), black and white chalk with touches of white gouache on tan paper, dimensions not known, Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, NC. Courtesy of Ackland Art Museum.

Louis Lafitte’s beautiful finished drawing of Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1790) shows Orestes trying to sleep on a couch, when four Furies visit him. Immediately above him is a Fury armed with a dagger, and to the right two other winged daemonic Furies are carrying the spirit of his murdered mother Clytemnestra.

Philippe-Auguste Hennequin (1762–1833), The Remorse of Orestes (1800), oil on canvas, 356 x 515 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Philippe-Auguste Hennequin’s The Remorse of Orestes (1800) is very complex, and uses the Furies as a tool for showing multiplex narrative. Orestes is at the left, the centre of attention, and his right arm is holding a woman, who I suspect is his sister Electra. He is under attack by a small army of Furies and spirits, including the body of Clytemnestra, on the floor, and I think Agamemnon too. There is a profusion of arms – reaching out, grasping, tugging.

Carl Rahl (1812–1865), Orestes Pursued by the Furies (c 1852), oil on canvas, 154 x 202 cm, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Oldenburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, this scene from the Oresteia was becoming more popular with painters. Carl Rahl’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies of about 1852 is more faithful to the original play, and the classical pottery, in showing three clearly fearsome if not murderous women attacking Orestes with their burning brands and daggers. The hair of the Furies is seen to contain small snakes, following one of the classical descriptions which makes them visibly similar to Medusa the Gorgon.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), Orestes Pursued by the Furies (The Remorse of Orestes) (1862), oil on canvas, 227 × 278 cm, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA. Wikimedia Commons.

The first well-known painting of this scene was William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies (also known as The Remorse of Orestes) from 1862. Three Gorgonic Furies are wailing and screaming at Orestes, and carry the murdered corpse of Clytemnestra, with Orestes’ dagger still buried deep into its chest.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Orestes and the Erinyes (c 1891), oil on canvas, 180 × 120 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau’s Orestes and the Erinyes (c 1891) is better known as Orestes and the Furies, and compares with his earlier and highly successful paintings of Salome, but has received far less recognition. Orestes is shown, still clutching a bloody sword from the murder of his mother, leaning in the foreground of an ornate temple. Above him are three saintly figures: not the fearsome Furies more usually shown, but the dead themselves, haunting him. There are snakes uncoiling themselves from the feet of the Furies, though.

The decoration shown is drawn from a wide range of cultures, spread across the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East, as far as India. I would love to see a detailed iconographic analysis of this work.

Franz von Stuck (1863–1928), Orestes and the Erinyes (1905), oil on canvas, 229 × 207 cm, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Franz von Stuck re-arranged the figures from Bouguereau’s work, in his Orestes and the Erinyes (1905). The Furies now tumble and spin through space, haunting Orestes as he tries to run away from them.

The greatest of all the paintings of Orestes and the Furies is one of the last major works of John Singer Sargent.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1922-25), oil on canvas, 348 × 317.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Sargent’s large masterpiece Orestes Pursued by the Furies was started in 1922, and completed in 1925, just prior to his death. Over its 100 square feet of canvas, it shows a young and naked Orestes cowering under the attacks of the Furies, as he tries to run from them. The swarm of no less than a dozen fearsome Furies have daemonic mask-like faces, blond hair swept back, and hold out burning brands and fistfuls of small snakes.

Sargent has gilded the flames on the brands, which makes them shine proud, just like fire. The isolated woman who stands in Orestes’ way is no Fury, though: she wears a gilded crown, and with the clean incision of a stab wound above her left breast can only be his mother, Clytemnestra.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Orestes Pursued by the Furies (detail) (1922-25), oil on canvas, 348 × 317.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Booker’s plot analysis is based on five stages:

  1. Anticipation, in which Orestes is separated from his bride-to-be and lover Hermione.
  2. Dream, in which Orestes would kill Pyrrhus to release Hermione from her enforced marriage.
  3. Frustration, when Orestes’ mother Clytemnestra and her lover murder his father Agamemnon.
  4. Nightmare, when Orestes kills his own mother to avenge his father’s death.
  5. Destruction, as the Furies hunt Orestes down and drive him mad because of his crime of matricide.

This is quite a different analysis to that presented by Booker (p 188), which is confined to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and corresponds more closely to the painted narrative I have shown in these two articles:

  • Anticipation, in Girodet’s Meeting of Orestes and Hermione and Guérin’s Andromache and Pyrrhus.
  • Dream, in Guérin’s Orestes Announces the Death of Pyrrhus to Hermione.
  • Frustration, in Guérin’s Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon, and referred to in subsequent paintings.
  • Nightmare, referred to in paintings of Electra and Orestes at Agamemnon’s tomb, and Orestes at Delphi.
  • Destruction, the most popular of all, in the paintings above.

Perhaps in this case the more extensive coverage of these paintings makes Booker’s archetypal plot of tragedy an even better fit.


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