A while back I talked about a painting called The Cupid Seller by Joseph-Marie Vien, noting it was Neoclassical. Today, I’d like to look at another work of art in the Neoclassical style. It’s Jupiter and Thetis, by the artist Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres (henceforth abbreviated to the more manageable J.A.D. Ingres).
This painting is the artist’s depiction of a scene from Homer’s Iliad. As the title indicates, it shows Jupiter and Thetis. So let’s start with this pair of figures. Jupiter, or Zeus as he was known by the ancient Greeks, sits on his throne facing the viewer. He is portrayed as a tanned and muscular man with dark hair and beard, the lower portion of his body draped in salmon colored robes. In one hand he holds a scepter, while the other arm rests casually, almost lazily, on a nearby cloud.
Next to Jupiter we see the kneeling form of Thetis. She is also only partially clad, but in contrast to the vibrant pink robes of Jupiter, Thetis is adorned in a garment that is composed of shades of blue, the soft colors of water, ranging in tones from light to dark, terminating with frothy folds that resemble sea foam. Her pose is one of supplication. One graceful arm reaches up to touch the chin of Jupiter, while the other rests on his lap. It is quite an intimate tableau.
In addition to Jupiter and Thetis, there are a couple more noteworthy figures in the painting. The first one I want to point out is the eagle. On the right side of the work, almost hidden against dark clouds, there sits an eagle. His gaze is turned toward Jupiter. It makes sense that Ingres would include an eagle. After all, the majestic bird was a symbol of Jupiter.
The second figure is Juno (or Hera, if you prefer her Greek name). This goddess, who is the wife of Jupiter, looks on from the far left side of the painting. She is shown as almost nothing more than a face resting on folded arms, floating on a cloud. However, despite the languid pose, Juno has an alert expression. And who can blame her for looking askance at what is unfolding in the clouds?
Speaking of clouds - the throne on which Jupiter is seated appears to float in the sky. It’s gilded, massive, weighty, with a tempestuous scene in bas relief under the foot of Jupiter. The clouds echo the tumult and emotion of this relief, and are also a subtle reference to the tension and drama that underlies this seemingly tranquil image. But again, I am getting ahead of myself here.
Now that I’ve described the painting, let’s take a moment to talk about the inspiration. I already mentioned that Ingres wanted to depict a scene from the Iliad. Sure enough, the book features a meeting between the ruler of the gods and Thetis.
Ingres himself wrote of his work that he aspired to “convey the feeling of ambrosia of the place, of the beauty of the characters, of their expressions and divine forms”. Be that as it may, the painting was not terribly well received at the time. For one thing, the painting was criticized for the slightly odd appearance of the figures. If you look closely, you may notice that Thetis has a disconcerting, distorted body. This is one of the central characteristics of the style of Ingres (I had one professor who referred to the women of Ingres as “boneless”, and I’ve never quite been able to get that suggestion out of my head ever since).
Jupiter and Thetis is in the collection of the Musée Granet, in Aix-en Provence, France.