Trojan Epics: 2 Paris and his Judgement

Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754–1829), The Judgement of Paris (1820), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Zeus had decided that the only way to solve the problem of there being too many mortals on earth was to arrange a war between the Greeks and Trojans. He set up the marriage of Thetis to Peleus to serve two purposes: their son would be the Greek warrior Achilles, and the feast attended by the deities would enable Eris to provoke a beauty contest between Athena, Hera and Aphrodite. All went according to plan, and his next step was to arrange the cause of that war.

The Greek states were too far from Troy and its surrounding state of the Troad for war to arise from territorial disputes, or even conflicts of interest. Zeus knew the best way to draw them into a war was over a woman. She was to be Greek, so he needed a prominent Trojan to abduct or seduce her, and Paris was perfect for this role.

Paris was the child of King Priam of Troy and his Queen Hecuba. His birth was blighted by a dream his mother had immediately beforehand, interpreted by the seer Aesacus as foretelling the destruction of Troy. However, his parents couldn’t face having their baby killed to block that prophecy, so instructed their chief herdsman Agelaus to remove the infant and deal with him. Agelaus too couldn’t kill the boy, so abandoned him on the slopes of Mount Ida, to the south-east of Troy, to let nature take its course.

Instead of dying on the mountainside, the infant was given suckle by a she-bear, and after nine days the herdsman gave in and adopted him, rearing him as his own son. The boy proved upright and true, scaring away a group of cattle-thieves and returning their stolen animals to the original owners. For this he was dubbed Alexander, meaning protector of men.

As a young man, Paris fell in love with the Oread (nymph) Oenone, and soon they had an intense physical relationship, followed by a son of their own. Although some claim that Zeus chose Paris to judge the beauty contest between the goddesses because of his fairness in decision-making, it’s more likely that Zeus wanted a Trojan prince who would be led astray by a beautiful woman. Paris proved a perfect choice.

Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682), Landscape with Paris and Oenone (‘The Ford’) (1648), oil on canvas, 118 x 150 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Paris and Oenone, also known as The Ford, of 1648 shows the family living with their livestock in the countryside, with the city of Troy in the distance. In reality, if the modern location of the city’s ruins is reasonably accurate, those lofty walls and towers should be twenty miles away, over the horizon.

One consistent detail given in accounts of Paris and Oenone’s romance is that he carved her name on the trunk of many trees, as a mark of his love for her. Ovid also claimed that Paris inscribed a poplar tree with the prophesy that, should Paris ever leave Oenone while they were both alive, the waters of the river Xanthus would flow backwards, something deemed impossible.

Reyer Jacobsz van Blommendael (1628–1675), Paris and Oenone (c 1655), oil on canvas, 123 x 110 cm, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Lille, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Thus the distinctive feature of most depictions of Paris with Oenone is an inscription carved into a tree trunk. In Reyer Jacobsz van Blommendael’s Paris and Oenone (c 1655), Paris appears to be reading one of them to her.

Jacob de Wit (1695–1754), Paris and Oenone (1737), oil on canvas, 99.5 x 146.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacob de Wit was even more explicit in his Paris and Oenone of 1737, where the lovers, suitably accompanied by a couple of amorini and their flock of sheep, recline by a trunk suitably inscribed, as shown in the detail below.

Jacob de Wit (1695–1754), Paris and Oenone (detail) (1737), oil on canvas, 99.5 x 146.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

Even in classical times, it was apparently common practice for lovers to carve the name of their partner into the bark of a tree trunk to mark their love. It’s possible that accounts of Paris doing this ensured the practice was propagated through the Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance.

The Judgement of Paris, as it has become known, is one of the standards for the aspiring figurative painter, and one of few opportunities to paint three nude women in a single picture. The accompanying story is simple and memorable. Whether Paris initially asked the goddesses to disrobe, or he felt unable to reach a verdict until they were naked, is almost immaterial. To help him arrive at the right decision, each of them offered an inducement: Athena offered him victory in war, Hera all the lands of the known world, and Aphrodite the most beautiful woman in the world.

As a young man whose taste for beautiful women was developing rapidly, he handed Eris’s prize golden apple to Aphrodite, and instantly made enemies of Athena and Hera. By some accounts, he even rejected them with insults.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Judgement of Paris (1632-35), oil on oak, 144.8 x 193.7 cm, National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

The Judgement of Paris was a popular theme for paintings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of my favourite accounts is this relatively late work from 1632-35 by Peter Paul Rubens, who made several versions during his career. The three goddesses are, from the left, Athena with her shield, Aphrodite, and Hera with her peacock. Paris is just about to give Aphrodite Eris’s golden apple, as Hermes leans on the tree behind.

James Thornhill (1675–1734), The Judgment of Paris (c 1704-05), oil on canvas, 122.3 x 119.5 cm, Government Art Collection, London. Wikimedia Commons.

James Thornhill, a pioneer of narrative painting in Britain, made this easel painting of The Judgment of Paris in about 1704-05, soon after he had become a Freeman of the Painter-Stainers’ Company of London, the closest Britain had to Saint Luke’s Guild. Its figures are Hermes, Paris, Athena, Aphrodite with Eros at her feet, about to take the golden apple, and Hera with her back to the viewer, as she is getting into her chariot drawn by a peacock.

Adriaen van der Werff (1659–1722), The Judgement of Paris (1716), oil on panel, 63.3 x 45.7 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Adriaen van der Werff painted The Judgement of Paris in 1716, long considered to be among the finest of his works. Paris sits in judgement over the beauty contest, with the helmeted Hermes behind him. Drawing his attention is Aphrodite, who has her son Eros in tow behind her, and holds out her right hand to receive the prize. Behind and to the left of Aphrodite is Hera, wearing a circle of gold, but without her distinctive peacocks. At the right is Athena, wearing her characteristic helmet. The golden apple is in Paris’s right hand, and there’s another fruit resting in the left foreground beside his crook.

Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), Judgement of Paris (c 1718-21), oil on panel, 47 x 31 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Antoine Watteau’s last major mythological painting was this unusual treatment of the Judgement of Paris from about 1718-21. Paris, with Hermes behind him, sits offering the golden apple of discord to a naked Aphrodite, who covers her face with a veil. Beside her is her son Eros, who looks away from Athena, who holds her Aegis, bearing the face of Medusa the Gorgon. Behind her is Hera, complete with peacock, who is stealing away with her right hand held in front of her face. As a former shepherd, Paris rests his crook at the far left, as his sheepdog sleeps by his feet.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Judgement of Paris (1806-1817), pen and grey ink and watercolour over graphite on paper, 38.5 x 46 cm, The British Museum, London. Courtesy of and © Trustees of the British Museum.

William Blake painted The Judgement of Paris in about 1806-17, thought to be one of a pair for his patron Thomas Butts, the other being Philoctetes and Neoptolemus on Lemnos, a more obscure story leading to the death of Paris. Blake shows the three contestants naked in front of Paris, just at the moment that the golden apple is being awarded to Aphrodite. Hera and Athena, standing either side of her, are visibly upset. Above them is the naked figure of Hermes, with his caduceus and its pair of intertwined serpents, and a winged helmet (originally a wide-brimmed Petasos). The demonic figure at the top left is presumably a harbinger of ensuing death and destruction.

Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754–1829), The Judgement of Paris (1820), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

The story remained popular with artists into the nineteenth century, when its depiction started to stray from convention, as shown in this version by the great narrative painter Jean-Baptiste Regnault in 1820. However, the same attributes such as Hera’s peacock are still present.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Judgement of Paris (1852), watercolor on paper, 40.7 × 48.3 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The Judgement of Paris (1852) is one of Gustave Moreau’s early watercolours, showing great promise of things to come. At its heart is a fairly faithful representation of this classical myth, in which Paris (right of centre) is deciding which of Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite is the most fair, and should be awarded the golden apple.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), The Judgment of Paris (1862-4), oil on canvas, 15 x 21 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Cézanne moves further from convention in his version of 1862-64, early in his career and well before he showed any sign of Impressionism. Paris, seated at the right, appears to be handing the golden apple to Aphrodite, second from left, while Hera modestly keeps her back turned towards him, and Athena is trying to seduce him and take the apple.

Vojtěch Hynais (1854–1925), The Judgment of Paris (1892), oil on canvas, 58 × 100 cm, Národní galerie v Praze, Prague, Czech Republic. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1892, Vojtěch Hynais returned to tradition with Paris seated on the left and the trio opposite. Aphrodite is the redhead with Eros behind her, Athena is the blonde with her back to the viewer, and Hera is admiring herself in a mirror next to one of her peacocks, on the right.

Enrique Simonet Lombardo (1866–1927), The Judgement of Paris (1904), oil on canvas, 215 x 331 cm, Museo de Málaga, Málaga, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Enrique Simonet’s The Judgement of Paris (1904) is a huge canvas now in the Museo de Málaga, and was perhaps his last famous painting. He shows, from the left, Athena, Hera and Aphrodite, with Eros, Aphrodite’s son, at her feet, and Paris. He compares the beauty of the goddesses with flowers and a peacock in full display behind them, and Paris, clad in an animal skin, with a flock of goats.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Judgment of Paris (c 1908-10), oil on canvas, 73 x 92.5 cm, Hiroshima Museum of Art, Hiroshima, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir also painted the Judgement late in his long career. Its three slightly soft-focus nudes are shown against a blurry background of countryside. Paris has accepted Aphrodite’s bribe, and is here awarding her the golden apple. Watching on is Hermes, complete with his winged helmet and sandals, and caduceus.

The next step in Zeus’s plan was for Aphrodite to set up Paris’s abduction of Helen, as I’ll describe in the next article.