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Work Woman Holding a Child and Glimpsing the Shadow of Embracing Figures: Phaedra and Hippolytus
Department of Prints and Drawings: 19th century
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Femme tenant un enfant et apercevant l'ombre de figures qui s'embrassent
Prints and Drawings
This drawing in black chalk and brown wash, with white highlights, shows Phaedra and Hippolytus. It is one of a few preparatory drawings for the canvas that Guérin exhibited at the Salon in 1802. Presented to the public only a few days before the Salon was due to close, the painting was so popular that the exhibition was extended.
In the center of the drawing is a weeping woman, with a child in her arms, pointing to a wall where we can make out the shadow of an embracing couple. The same motif appears in the left corner of the sheet, without the shadow, for which Guérin would have to have used wash, a pictorial medium that renders light and contrasts. On the right is Hippolytus, his arm outstretched in a gesture of denial, shown from the side, whereas he is shown from the front in the painting.
The scene remains an enigma. There is only one version known apart from the one in the Louvre: a painting in the Musée d'Angers, which, for lack of a better title, is called Jealousy. The drawing no doubt provides the key to the problem, for two complementary reasons. The first is external: the presence of the motif on the left, linked to the figure of Hippolytus on the right. The second is internal: an analysis of the gestures that connect the two figures by reverse symmetry.
A mysterious scene
The woman's outstretched arm echoes that of Hippolytus. The shadow is an allegory by default, inspired by a theme in vogue in painting at the time: the daughter of Dibutades sketching her lover's profile on the wall, an act regarded as the origin of the art of painting. This would suggest that it has some connection with Phaedra, although this is paradoxical, for the unhappy mother seems very maternal in her distress and would make us think of Andromache clutching Astyanax. But if she is Andromache, what about the shadow on the wall? Is it to be seen as a cruel reminder of the happy days when her legitimate husband, Hector, was still alive, or the hated image of Pyrrhus, to whom she was given after Hector's death? Phaedra, who seemed a less likely heroine at first, is in fact a more logical choice. The decisive argument is to be found in Racine. In a famous monologue, Phaedra, learning of Hippolytus' love for Aricia, gives a heart-rending account of their youthful happiness, which is an insult to her solitude:
"Heaven approves the innocence of their sighs;
They follow their amorous inclinations without remorse
For them, every day dawns clear and serene."
A theatrical form of Classicism
Guérin's drawing conforms to the spirit of early 19th-century classicism, adding a tinge of dissolution in its theatrical aspect. Painting had become a stage; artists sought to emulate writers like Racine who dealt in tragedy without terror, emotion without grandiloquence, the pathetic without pathos.
BibliographyBottineau Josette, "Une Esquisse de Phèdre et Hippolyte de Pierre Guérin", in Revue du Louvre, 1984, p. 277, n 8.
Clark Alvin L. Jr, "Theatricality and Enigma. A New Drawing by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin at the Fogg", in Dear Print Fan : A Festschrift for Marjorie B. Cohn, 2001, pp. 69-75.
"Guérin et Delacroix", Exposition, Paris, Musée national Eugène Delacroix, 1992, in Le Petit journal des grandes expositions, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, n 236, p. 1, n 5.
Guiffrey Jean, Marcel Pierre, Inventaire général des dessins du musée du Louvre et du musée de Versailles. École Française, Paris, Librairie centrale d'art et d'architecture, t. VI, 1911, n 4634, p. 68, repr.
Lazano L. M., Arte de las Academias : Francia y México, siglos XVII-XIX, Exposition, México, Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, 1999, n 185, repr.
Michel Régis, Le Beau idéal ou l'art du concept, Exposition, Paris, Cabinet des dessins, musée du Louvre, 17 octobre-31 décembre 1989, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1989, pp. 72-74, 156, n 42.
Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (Paris, 1774-Rome, 1833)
Woman Holding a Child and Glimpsing the Shadow of Embracing Figures: Phaedra and Hippolytus
Black chalk, brown wash, and white highlights on paper
H. 26.4 cm; W. 42.1 cm
Gift of the painter Raymond Auguste Quinsac Monvoisin, 1859
Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.
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