Ovid’s Heroides – Artist Interpretations – Part 4

Here we are – the fourth and final part!

14: Hypermnestra to Lynceus

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

Now, this is a strange story. 50 sisters are forced to marry 50 brothers, and the girls are ordered, by their father to murder their husbands on their wedding night! Think that is the image below! The letter from Hypermestra is a treatise in piety – she did not follow her father’s orders as he respected her chastity. Well done to him as they went on to have a marriage while her sisters all ended up as virgin widows.

Told you it was strange! The Waterhouse painting is typical of the Victorian whitewashing and here, Waterhouse paints the nubile Denaids in varying states of dishevelment, as if they would not notice their robes slipping off their perfect bodies.

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

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

We usually associate Sappho and her poetry with the island of Lesbos and the female community associated with Aphrodite. Simeon Solomon’s gentle work shows a fantasy relationship with another poet, Erinna as explained on the Tate’s website.


In Heroides, Sappho, as a much older woman writes to her younger lover, Phaon, a boatman. Phaon, as an old man, took Aphrodite, disguised as an old woman, across to Asia Minor without knowing who she was and took no charge for doing so. She gave him an ointment that made him young when he used it.

The painting below shows the young and beautiful Phaon with Sappho. A ‘January to May’ affair that ended when, as expected, Phaon abandoned her. Sappho’s letter is not one of complaint about his leaving, but about how he has turned her eye away from the beauty of women when she turned it towards him. She feels now that she can no longer write of their beauty and that he has taken all of her success away.

In this classical painting, David brings Cupid to Sappho, carrying the lyre of creativity. Surrounding them all are metaphors of love, the kissing doves, two trees, branches entwined, but, the angle of the lovers is a strange one. It appears that Phaon is turning Sappho’s head away from his gaze and out to us, the viewer.

While researching this one, I came across work by a Romantic poet, Mary Robinson and found this to be interesting when read in conjuction with the art work: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/apr/12/sappho-phaon-mary-robinson

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

16, 17: Paris to Helen, Helen to Paris

Here we have a twofer – a letter to Helen from Paris, and her reply. Of course, the story needs no introduction, Paris steals the beautiful wife of King Menelaus and the biggest war in history takes place in Troy.

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

I chose Gaston Bussiere’s painting as it had quite a natural beauty about it but the one below of big brother, Hector admonishing Paris and Helen just made me laugh. Unusually, we have a male nude with a fully dressed woman and the gaze of Paris downwards, toward the outstretched hand of Hector gives him a dismissive look. Paris, unashamed of his nakedness is not impressed with Hector’s hectoring!

The letters, however, cross the gap between Paris arriving in Sparta and Helen’s departure, whether under duress or as a willing accomplice. Paris writes to plead with Helen to leave with him – in quite a lengthy manner and her response is to refuse his request, but she hints that she would take him as a lover while Menelaus is away. In Coutan’s painting, Helen has that coolness about her as she sits, playing with her veil, holding Paris’s hand.

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),

Our second two for one, is Leander and Hero. This tragic story of young, impetuous lovers is incredibly sad. Hero is a handmaiden of Aphrodite and Leander falls in love with her. He persuades her that as Aphrodite is the goddess of love, she would not be dismayed at Hero taking a lover and so, through one hot summer, Leander swims across to the tower in which Hero resides and she places a light in her window to guide him. So far, so secret. But, this is one of the myths and things never go well. One night there is a terrible storm, the light goes out, the waves toss the body of Leander here and there, until he succumbs to the sea’s icy grip. In her despair, Hero throws herself into the sea to be with her love.

Leighton’s tightly cropped portrait of Hero watching out for Leander is beautiful; the furrowed brow is just perfect!

The second image is a limestone sculpture which I think is glorious! There is a little bit about Laurent here.

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.

Here we are at the final set of letters between Actonius and Cydippe. And, it is the story of love at first sight! A summary of the story can be found here.

Clever Actonius wrote the words “I swear by Diana to marry Actonius” on an apple which he threw to the feet of the lovely Cydippe. The foolish girl read the words out loud, and thought nothing of it. Actonius used this as legal proof that they are married! in the letter to her, Actonius is rather aggressive in his tone towards Cydippe, as unfortunately, despite also being in love with Actonius, her father has ordered her to marry someone else.

Cydippe’s letter reveals her understanding that she is torn between the two suitors and as the letter continues, we find that she is falling more in love with Actonius and the two eventually marry.

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.

This has been quite an undertaking but with lockdown still in place, it was interesting to spend time in the ancient world of gods and goddesses and the mortals who came into their sphere!

For more information on this text, visit Heroides.org