Ovid’s Heroides – Artist Interpretations

This holiday I am looking at three texts: Homer’s The Odyssey, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Ovid’s Heroides.  The reason? Interpretation. Every time we read or view a piece of writing, poetry or artwork, we interpret. It is what makes us human in many ways.  The first two books are old friends, especially Homer but Ovid was new to me despite him living in 43 BC!

This work gives voice to many of the female characters of myth and history and it begins with Odysseus, or Ulysses as he is referred to in Ovid, and his wife Penelope.  In The Odyssey, Penelope is the stay at home wife, pursued by suitors who are camped out in the palace, eating and drinking and generally making a nuisance of themselves, while she patiently waits for Odysseus to return.

In this tale, we have the first instance in literature of a woman being silenced and it comes when Penelope speaks to her son, Telemachus who tells her: “Go back to your quarters… Speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all, for mine is the power in the household.”  

This is not unexpected.  Throughout history, and right through to today, women have been silenced in one way or another.  But here, we have a poet who not only gave Penelope her ‘speech’ in a literary epistle, but also gave many of the other women who appear here a voice that challenges the men in their lives.  Anyone who has had their heart broken, male or female, will recognise the agony of Penelope’s plea to her husband: “I am yours–it behooves me to be called yours: Penelope will always be Ulysses’ wife.”

However, this is about art. And interpretation.  Artists have used the literature of the past to inspire their art, and the way it is portrayed will be based on their own way of seeing the text.  What is interesting is that interpretation. Where does it match the original text and where does it reflect its own time? Let’s follow the first four of Ovid’s epistles to see where our artists lead us.  

1: Penelope to Ulysses

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Penelope (1869), chalk, primarily red, 90.2 × 71.1 cm, Private collection.

You can always rely on DGR to portray a myth in the most romantic of terms.  Penelope wistfully looks off to the distance, awaiting the return of her husband. In The Odyssey, Penelope passes the time at her loom and Rosetti captures a moment where Penelope is distracted. In order to put off the suitors, Penelope had said, “Young men, my wooers, since goodly Odysseus is dead, be patient, though eager for my marriage, until I finish this robe.” Ovid’s interpretation is that she is a clever girl,  or every evening she unravels all she has made in the day: “Nor would the hanging web weary my widowed hands, As I seek to cheat the endless night.”

John William Waterhouse; Penelope and the Suitors 1912, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museum

Waterhouse, on the other hand, does seem to show the Penelope of Ovid.  The way in which the handsome youths persist with flowers and music are steadfastly ignored by the faithful wife.  Her lines to Ulysses: “Although the victor, you are still gone, and I am not allowed to know The cause of the delay, or where in the world you hide, cruel one.” is quite a rebuke to her errant husband and one that this Penelope is likely to give.

2: Phyllis to Demophoon

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), Phyllis and Demophoon (1870), bodycolour and watercolour with gold medium and gum arabic on composite layers of paper on canvas, 47.5 x 93.8 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England.

The story of Phyllis and Demophoon is the tragic tale of one who believed her love to be fickle.  Phyllis, daughter of a Thracian king and she fell in love with one of the sons of Theseus when his ship landed on her shores.  As is often the case, as a token of her love, she gave her virginity to Demaphoon who disappeared as quickly as he arrived, promising to return within the month.  However, after four months, Demaphoon had not arrived but even then, Phyllis was unwilling to condemn him: “Hope also has been slow to depart; we are slow to believe, When believing wounds us; even now, your lover is unwilling for you to be guilty.”  

As the letter continues, Phyllis puts the blame on herself, “Tell me, what have I done, except to love unwisely? By my crime, I could deserve to have you. The only evil in me is that I took you, evil man.”  

Phyllis dies by her own hand, choosing to hang herself: “My neck also, because I had offered it to the bonds Of your unfaithful arms, I would be glad to entwine in the noose.I am determined to be ripe for death, to repay my youthful chastity. In choosing my death, there will be little delay.”

Demaphoon arrives too late and discovers the tragedy and, as he embraces the tree, leaves sprout in recognition.  

In Edward Burne Jones’s painting of the moment when Demaphoon takes the tree into his arms, it is the eyes that are the most striking.  As Phyllis embraces her love, they look into each others’ eyes with such tenderness that it is heartbreaking to witness. The model for this painting was Maria Zambaco, a young Greek woman who not only was the model for many of his works, but also his lover.  A very different woman to his wife, Georgiana, Burne Jones became obsessed by the exotic Maria who had ambitions to be an artist herself and who would always acknowledge Burne Jones as her teacher.


The affair continued and the change in Burne Jones was palpable.  Gone was the nervous ‘booby’ and a more confident man appeared in his place. However, the affair hit its climax when Burne Jones finally refused to run away with Maria to a Greek island and she threatened to take an overdose of laudanum as the two walked the streets of Holland Park discussing their future.

The whole episode resulted in Burne Jones becoming unwell, taking to his bed and being nursed by his devoted wife and the whole episode, while almost a Greek tragedy in itself, demonstrated to Burne Jones his inability to grasp the moment and to be strong enough to take the chance on being truly happy. This work was completed long after the affair had ended, so perhaps the longing in the eyes was from a place of truth after all.

3: Briseis to Achilles

Jean-Baptiste-Henri Deshays (1729–1765), Briseis Led from the Tent of Achilles (c 1761), oil on canvas, 83 x 78.5 cm, Musée des Augustins de Toulouse, Toulouse, France.

The third letter is from Brisesis, daughter of the King of Lyrnessos to Achilles; the conqueror of her city .  As a war prize, Achilles took Brisesis with him and during the siege of Troy, Brisesis was captured by the leader of the Greek army, Agamemnon.  

Angered by this treachery and declaring his love for Brisesis, Achilles refuses to continue to fight for the Greeks which does results in losses.  To make amends, Agamemnon offers to return . The war then goes very badly for the Greeks. In an attempt to resolve the dispute, Agamemnon offers to return Brisesis but, strangely, Achilles refuses.  The letter she send to Achilles tackles the delicate issue as to why she is no longer wanted.

The letter explains why she is angry and upset with him and questions his reasons for not taking her back. Strong words come from Brisesis: “For what crime do I deserve to be held so cheap by you, Achilles? Where has your fickle love fled so quickly from me?” Ovid certainly wishes to give his women a voice to be heard.  

The painting by the french artist, Jean-Baptiste-Henri Deshays, seems to take another aspect: the grief she felt at being taken from Achilles: “Parting, I gave no kiss.
But tears without end I gave, and tore my hair–
Unhappy one, I seemed taken prisoner a second time!”

Brisesis certainly in tearful in this work, her unhappiness quite obvious.

In the plaster relief below, the Danish artist replicates the classical Greek statuary and our Brisesis is led gently away from Achilles.  This seems to fit with the way in which Ovid has Brisesis question why he let her go without a fight when Eurybates and Talthybius came to take her away.  She comments: “Each, casting his eyes on the other’s face,
Asked silently where our love was.
It could have been postponed.”

It would appear that Brisesis has every right to be angry with Achilles!

Bertel Thorwaldsen, Briseis and Achilles, 1803, Thorwaldsen Museum, Copenhagen.

4: Phaedra to Hippolytus

Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889), Phaedra (1880), oil on canvas, 194 x 286 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France

The synopsis of this story of unrequited love is as follows:

Phaedra, daughter of King Minos of Crete, is married to the great hero Theseus, who is ruler of Athens.  Phaedra has fallen in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. Phaedra’s letter to Hippolytus, tries to persuade him into an incestuous relationship with her.  She presents her love for Hippolytus, reviews the wrongs that Theseus has done to both of them, argues that incest is not such a bad thing, and begs Hippolytus to return her love. http://heroides.org/

Alexandra Cabanel takes as his theme the idea of Phaedra’s lust for the young and beautiful Hippolytus.  The sensuous aspect of this scene, with the dishevelled bedding draped over her naked body and the maids mirroring their mistress’s languid demeanour reflects Phaedra’s lines: “Love comes more heavily, because it comes later in life–I burn within;
I burn, and my breast has a hidden wound.”  From this, it is hard to imagine how Hippolytus could resist the allure of the older woman.

However,Jozef Geirnaert depicts a meeting between the two and it is quite obvious that he does not approve.  Phaedra grabs at Hippolytus imploringly, while he puts his hands up in protestation – he does not want any part of this.  He gazes upwards, towards the Goddess, Diana, who he adores and cannot look at his step mother. You can almost hear her cries, attempting to persuade: “And do not, since I may seem a stepmother who would sleep with her stepson,
Let empty names terrify your soul.
This ancient sense of virtue, which will die out in the coming age,
Was out of fashion even in Saturn’s reign.”

Phaedra and Hippolytus. Jozef Geirnaert (1791–1859), The Bowes Museum

In applying the artist impression to the text, we receive another interpretation, one that helps bring to life the words placed in the mouths of these mythical characters.  I think the rest of the book is going to be very interesting indeed, especially with the following images to go with it.

5: Oenone to Paris

Jacob de Wit (1695–1754), Paris and Oenone (1737), oil on canvas, 99.5 x 146.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam.

OENONE REFUSES TO SAVE PARIS, By Antoine-Jean-Baptiste Thomas, 1816

6: Hypsipyle to Jason

Johann Christian Reinhart (1761-1847), Classic landscape with Hypsipyle and Opheltes (1816), oil, dimensions not known, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe, Germany.

Author: Master of the Scandalous Chronicle, active from 1490 to 1510

7: Dido to Aeneas

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Dido (1781), oil on canvas, 244.3 x 183.4 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT.

Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas Tate, London 1766

8: Hermione to Orestes

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (1767-1824), The Meeting of Orestes and Hermione (c 1800), pen and brown and black ink, point of brush and brown and gray wash, with black chalk and graphite, heightened with white gouache on cream wove paper, 28.5 x 21.8 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art (Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund), Cleveland, OH. Courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin Oreste annonçant à Hermione la mort de Pyrrhus musée des beaux-arts de Caen

9: Deianira to Hercules

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Deianira (c 1878), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection.

Bartholomäus Spranger, Hercules, Deianira and the Centaur Nessus, 1580 Kunsthistorisches Museum,Vienna

10: Ariadne to Theseus

Paulus Bor (circa 1601–1669), Ariadne (1630-35), oil on canvas, 149 x 106 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu, Poznań, Poland.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) Ariadne on Naxos (1913), oil on canvas, 116 × 147 cm, Private collection.

Two parts of the story come together here.

11: Canace to Macareus

Artist not known, Canace, from Heroines of Tor Marancia (date not known), fresco, dimensions not known, Sala delle Nozze Aldobrandine, The Vatican.

12: Medea to Jason

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Medea (1866-68), oil on wood panel with gilded background, 61.2 x 45.6 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England.

Medea, Anselm Feurbach, oil on canvas, 1870.

13: Laodamia to Protesilaus

George William Joy (1844-1925), Laodamia (1878), oil on canvas, 107.3 x 153.3 cm, Portsmouth City Museum, Portsmouth, England.

Sarcophagus with scenes of the myth of Protesilaus and Laodamia. “Laodamia meets Protesilaus”.
The front panel. Marble. Late 2nd century CE. Naples, Santa Chiara Church

14: Hypermnestra to Lynceus

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Danaides (1903), oil on canvas, 111 × 154.3 cm, Private collection.

Artist not known, Hypermnestra, Lynceus (or Linus) and the Danaïdes (1473), hand coloured woodcut from Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris, translated by Heinrich Steinhöwel and printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm c 1474, Penn Libraries call number: Inc B-720, Philadelphia, PA

This story was told in the fourteenth of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris (Concerning Famous Women), published in 1374, and illustrated as Hypermnestra, Lynceus and the Danaïdes (1473) in this hand coloured woodcut from the translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel.

15: Sappho to Phaon

Simeon Solomon (1840–1905), Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864), watercolour on paper, 33 x 38.1 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1980), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

Sappho and Phaon, 1809,Oil on canvas, 225 x 262 cm,The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

16, 17: Paris to Helen, Helen to Paris

Gaston Bussière (1862–1928), Helen of Troy (1895), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Ursulines de Mâcon, Mâcon, France.

Hector admonishing Paris and Helen. 1820. Amable Paul Coutan. French.1792-1837. oil on canvas

18, 19: Leander to Hero, Hero to Leander

Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton (1830–1896), Last Watch of Hero (1880),

Image: Robert Laurent (United States, born France, 1890-1970), Hero and Leander, circa 1943, limestone, 27 x 39 x 20 inches, Portland Museum of Art, Maine, Hamilton Easter Field Art Foundation Collection, gift of Barn Gallery Associates, Inc., Ogunquit, Maine, 1979.13.45. © Estate of Robert Laurent

20, 21: Acontius to Cydippe, Cydippe to Acontius

Paulus Bor (c 1601–1669), Cydippe with Acontius’s Apple (date not known), oil on canvas, 151 x 113.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam.

Circle of Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), Acontius and Cydippe Before the Altar of Diana (date not known), oil on canvas, 90.9 x 71.2 cm, Private collection.

For more information on this text, visit Heroides.org

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