Thursday, October 25, 2012

Picture of the Week - Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727-88) study for Diana and Actaeon, 1784-5, black chalk and wash, heightened with white on paper

The study from the Cecil Higgins Collection is the final study of three for an oil painting, now in the Royal Collection (you can see the work here). The story of Diana and Acteon is told in the Third Book of Metamorphoses, a long narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid. The myths told in Ovid's poem are written elsewhere and in earlier texts with many variations to the stories, as well using the differing Roman and Greek names for the gods, but for artists depicting myths in paintings in the 16th to 18th centuries it was the key work. In this story Diana (or Artemis to the Greeks) is bathing with her nymphs after a hunt in

...a spacious grotto, all around o'er-grown
With hoary moss, and arch'd with pumice-stone.

Acteon, who has also just finished hunting, comes to the clearing and disturbs the bathing party, frightening the nymphs and angering Diana. A virgin goddess, Diana furiously protects her modesty and in anger throws water at Acteon which transforms him into a stag:

...the man begun to disappear
By slow degrees, and ended in a deer.
A rising horn on either brow he wears...

Actaeon then flees from the scene but only lands in more trouble as he encounters his hounds who do not recognise him and pounce on him, tearing him to pieces. As he lies dying on the ground his hunting party call for their lord Actaeon to celebrate the caught stag, and he can only wish he wasn't so near to the gory scene as to be a part of it.

Gainsborough's depiction takes a more remote viewpoint from the famous painting by Titian, where Diana's side glance at Actaeon delivers all her fury and vengeance. The scene is more tranquil and the figures looser; Actaeons antlers have started to appear but the group of goddess and nymphs seem calm. In both painting and the Cecil Higgins study Acteon is rendered in the same way as the trees and rocks, with loose handling of black chalk and wash, where the bathers shine out with the lightest areas of the paper and dazzling white chalk. Diana is the standing figure in the centre; her arms reach out to fling the magical water at the intruder. Gainsborough is clearly as interested in the woodland scene as much as the myth taking place within it, and makes if almost feel the most natural thing to find chance upon a goddess bathing in the English countryside.

Gainsborough had not turned to mythological subjects before and never exhibited the picture but he was in the last years of his life with a swollen neck from cancer and was perhaps reflecting on his life in a different way, on his passion for the suffolk landscape and his own love of beauty. (Andrew Graham Dixon has written more on his website about the relationship of this picture with Gainsborough's terminal illness and his impending death.)

Kristian Purcell