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Work The Death of Eriphyle

Department of Prints and Drawings: 19th century

Les Erinyes auprès du corps d'Eriphyle

Prints and Drawings
19th century

Author(s):
Maget Antoinette

This drawing, done in 1810, was a preliminary study for a picture Fuseli painted in 1821. Drawings played a major part in Fuseli's creative approach, and this one is no exception, for he himself referred to the pre-eminence of line over color. Although it differs from the final painting in some respects (some figures appearing only in the latter, for example), it broadly defines the spatial distribution of forms and figures in the final work.

Domestic violence

In this drawing Fuseli depicts an episode from Theban mythology, in which Eriphyle has just been slain by her son Alcmaeon. In committing this act of matricide, the latter has carried out the promise made to his father Amphiaraus to avenge him if Eriphyle should reveal his hiding place and so condemn him to take part in the fatal Seven against Thebes expedition. Eriphyle is portrayed languidly outstretched and with her head thrown back, in a pose that might be interpreted as provocative were it not for the presence of a blood-stained knife, which reveals this to be the convulsions of her death agony. Behind the draperies, which define the horizontal separation of foreground and background, stand the Erinyes or Furies, all pointing at Alcmaeon, who stands outside the picture.

A mythological repertoire

Although he did not specify his sources, Fuseli was clearly fascinated by this subject, of which he produced several versions. Classical mythology furnished him with an inexhaustible repertoire of allegories and violent and tragic images, providing endless inspiration for his imagination. His inventions were inspired by a combination of legend and dreams, and in this tragic past he found characters whom he could present in his own manner, so as to convey their inner passions on the one hand, and on the other to invest them with some of the characteristics of social satire. For Fuseli, Eriphyle's fate resembled that of Clytemnestra. It is doubtless for this reason that Eriphyle's pose recalls that of Clytemnestra on the sarcophagi of Orestes, and that Fuseli transcribed a Greek quotation from the Choephorae of Aeschlyus at the top of the sheet. This version of the Theban legend seems to represent an idiosyncratic synthesis of classical sources.

Dramatizing a crime

The composition, which can be dated to c.1810 thanks to the annotation "Q.E. Augt 10", is similar in the foreground to that of The Nightmare (1781, Detroit Institute of Arts), but here any sense of ambiguity or allure is banished by the presence of the bloodstained knife. Despite her loose, flowing hair, charged with eroticism and symbolic of her femininity, Eriphyle's pose is not one of abandon but rather, we are told by the fragment of Alcmaeon's weapon, one of death. The parapet hung with draperies reflects the attenuation of reality that is typical of Fuseli: this use of a stucture enveloped in cloth, blinding and dulling the senses, lends a dizzying sense of depth to the drawing. The carefully draped curtain heightens the sense of menace that hangs over Eriphyle's corpse, with each lozenge-shaped fold grimly echoing the outline of the sword lying in the foreground. The composition clearly emphasizes the division between the human world, where Eriphyle lies, and that of the gods, an invisible universe reigned over by the Erinyes. The Erinyes pursue Alcmaeon, driven by their mission to punish the murder so that the social order can be restored. They are depicted with their hair undone and with wings in the place of snakes, symbolizing their haste to wreak vengeance.

Bibliography

Buttler J. de, "Johann Heinrich Füssli", Revue du Louvre, 1975, n 2, pp. 143-6.
D'Outre-manche: l'art britannique dans les collections publiques françaises, exhibition, Paris, musée du Louvre, 19 September-19 December 1994, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1994, n 161, p. 246.
Füssli, exhibition, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, 1990, repr. p. 9.
Henry Fuseli, 1741-1825, exhibition, London, Tate Gallery, 1975, n 74, p. 82.
Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1741-1825, exhibition, Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Munich, Prestel, 1974-5, n 175.
Johann Heinrich Füssli: 1741-1825, exhibition, Paris, musée du Petit Palais, Paris, Association française d'action artistique, 1975, n 42.
Michel Régis, "Füssli : histoires d'oeil", La Peinture comme crime ou "la part maudite" de la modernité, exhibition, Paris, musée du Louvre, 15 October 2001-14 January 2002, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2001, pp. 88-109, 356-8 (notice de Ronzoni Emmanuela).
Schiff Gert, Johann Heinrich Füssli: 1741-1825, Zürich, Verlag Berichthaus, 1973 (new ed. 1980), n 1807, repr. p. 587.
Schiff Gert (ed. Viotto Paola), L'Opera completa di Füssli, Milano, Rizzoli, 1977.
Starcky Emmanuel, "J. H. Füssli. Les Érinyes auprès du corps d'Ériphyle (1810)", Revue du Louvre, 1988, n 4, pp. 332-3.

Technical description

  • Henry FUSELI (Johann Heinrich FÜSSLI; Zurich, 1741 - London, 1825)

    The Death of Eriphyle

    1810

  • Pen and gray wash on black chalk outlines, with watercolor highlights

    H. 20 cm; W. 24.3 cm

  • Jürg Stuker Gallery, Basel; Kurt Meissner collection, Zurich; donated by the Société des amis du Louvre, 1988

    4041568

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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