Thursday, October 13, 2016

Hero and Leander, by Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1814)

We see here a very different type of picture by Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1783-1859), Hero and Leander, painted in 1814.

This is a Greek myth telling of the love between Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite that lived in a tower in Sestos beside the Hellespont (Dardanelles, today), and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait.  Leader fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to be with her.  She would light a lamp at the top of her tower to help lead the way for him.

Aphrodite was the Goddess of Love, but Hero was a virgin.  Leander tells Hero that Aphrodite would not value the supplication of a virgin, and convinces her to let him make love to her.  Their love affair lasts through the summer; but on one stormy night, the waves buffet Leander, who becomes lost; the storm also blows out Hero’s guiding light.  Leander drowns, and when Hero sees his dead body, she throws herself over the tower’s edge, uniting them in death.

This tale has been popular with painters, poets, troubadours and writers for thousands of years.  (One wonders if the seed of Romeo and Juliet can be found within it.)  Of the many literary retellings of the story, perhaps the best known was by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593).  In Marlowe’s version, Leander is spotted during his swim by Neptune, who confuses him with Ganymede and carries him to the bottom of the ocean.  Neptune is clearly besotted by the young man.  Marlowe writes of "[i]magining that Ganymede, displeas'd, [h]ad left the Heavens ... [t]he lusty god embrac'd him, call'd him love ... He watched his arms and, as they opened wide [a]t every stroke, betwixt them would he slide [a]nd steal a kiss, ... And dive into the water, and there pry [u]pon his breast, his thighs, and every limb, ... [a]nd talk of love," while the boy, naive and unaware of Greek love practices, protests, "'You are deceiv'd, I am no woman, I.' Thereat smil'd Neptune.”  When Neptune realizes his mistake, he brings Leander back to the shore, giving him a bracelet that would keep him safe from drowning.

Leander arrives at Hero’s tower.  She answers the door to find the youth nude, and after much love talk, consummate their relationship.  The poem ends with dawn approaching; Marlowe was never able to finish his epic; he would be murdered in a barroom brawl before completion.

Delorme would no doubt have been aware of Marlowe’s text, and it’s possible to see where it informed his painting.  With his delicate curls, beatific smile and shimmering, supple body, Leander is quite beautiful.  Hero anoints his tresses with perfume (or, perhaps, sweet-smelling oils) taken from the open box beside them, a particular irony, seeing that the youth is doomed to drown.  Take a moment to look at how wonderfully Delorme delineates each of Leander’s fingers (on Hero’s shoulder).  These are not the fingers of a Samson, but, rather, a pretty boy.  And though he looks up at Hero with adoration, he is a little … sappy.

The most splendid component of this picture is the glorious Hero.  Once again Delorme harkens back to Raphael for inspiration of the heroine’s face.  But it is in the depiction of her voluptuous (and, frankly, sexual body) that the quality of the picture rests.  It is no mistake that the centerpiece of the entire painting is Hero’s mons veneris; it lies dead-center in the picture, and Delomre’s use of light draws the eye’s attention directly to it.  It is also the center of the figure, and the playful gestures of both her arms and her legs seem to stem from it.  (Even the application of perfume is code for what is going on, as the couple rejoices next to an open box.)

Delorme’s coyness extends to the background, where he has a makeshift curtain block the background window; he places the lyre at the base of Aphrodite’s statue.  In the symbolism of ancient Greece, Orpheus was able to play the lyre in such a way as to knock down stone walls.

This is a witty, beautifully constructed picture.  Not inexplicably moving, like his Cephalus and Aurora, but accomplished nonetheless.

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