A Change of Plan
Entry 24 September 16, 2013
Starting in February 2013, a little more than six months after I started my project of looking at all the paintings in the Louvre, I added a second project, a blog about the experience. Although I didn’t admit it, I nurtured a dream that the blog would bring me the kind of public recognition achieved by the Julie of Julie and Julia fame or by the two bloggers I saw interviewed on CityTV’s Breakfast Television this morning, the morning of September 16th, the date I’m starting to write this entry for my blog about The Louvre: All the Paintings. They write at reasonsmommydrinks.com (Why doesn’t that website name trigger a spellcheck challenge from Word?) and were on the show to discuss their new book, which they got a deal for only shortly after starting the blog, apparently.
Despite my superior subject matter—Also from this morning’s early morning television comes the assurance from TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey that no one wants any fewer films at TIFF any more than anyone wants the Louvre to have fewer paintings than it does, book and movie deals didn’t arrive before the return of my students, so I’m going to have to cut back. I haven’t given up working my way through my Louvre book, and I don’t want to give up the blog, but I’ve decided to adjust my expectations. My plan is to spend two weeks each month looking at paintings, followed by a week of selecting a topic and drafting a blog entry, and then a week of putting together the final edited text and the images into a post.
Although this month I have had only a week, rather than two, for looking at paintings—my last blog entry under the old schedule was posted on September 6th, I identified several possible subjects: my 500th painting, which was Philosopher with Eyeglasses (ca. 1660) by Luca Giordano (1634-1705), along with a new calculation of how long it will take to finish looking at all of the Louvre’s 3,022 paintings; all of Giordano’s 10 paintings, since he’s one of only five of the 230 artists I’ve looked at so far with 10 or more pieces in the museum; and the many still lifes (7 of 18 paintings) that appeared on the two pages of the four I looked at this week that weren’t devoted wholly to Giordano.
I bypassed all of these in favor of two paintings on classical subjects, Diana with Orion’s Corpse (ca. 1685) by Daniel Seiter (1647-1705), and Juno and Argus (ca. 1685) by Gregorio de Ferrari (1647-1726). They had a striking amount in common: artist birthdate, composition date, subject matter, even the arrangement of elements in the frame. In both, a goddess resting on a cloud looks down at the body of a slain man, in whose death the goddess has had an important role, and for whose sake a memorial in nature will be created. In both, there are other figures in addition to the slain man and the goddess. There are differences between the works as well as similarities. The hunter Orion was killed by Diana, the goddess who is looking at his corpse, whereas Argus was killed by Mercury in order to set thwart a plan of jealous Juno to keep Io away from her husband Jupiter by putting Io under the guard of Argus with his 100 eyes. In Seiter’s painting, the other figure is an adult male holding a jar and looking up into the face of the goddess, while Ferrari places two winged cherubs and a peacock between Juno and the body of Argus. Orion is memorialized in the stars, while Juno is said to have placed Argus’s eyes on the tail of the peacock, her favorite bird.
I was drawn first to the paintings because I was uncertain about how to read the image of Diana and Orion; there seemed to be something of sorrow in Diana’s concerned expression, and yet she was distanced from the body before her, not only by the space between them but also by the great difference between their bodily attitudes, he sprawled and exposed, she lying above him in a dignified pose. The figures are sensuously rendered, as if there was powerful feeling uniting the couple, and yet this feeling could easily be hate rather than love, as signalled by the clear reversal of gender roles: she is powerful and strong, whereas he is defeated and without protection.
I realized that I didn’t know the story of Orion, that my assumption that he would be a hero mourned in death reflected my familiarity with the constellation named for him, a winter favorite of mine, rather than a thorough knowledge of his place in mythology. When I looked up Orion in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, a book I have loved since first reading it in high school, I discovered another possible explanation for my uncertainty: there are many versions of the death of Orion, not just one, and in some of them Diana kills him deliberately because he has offended her, whereas in others she is tricked into destroying her favorite. Did Seiter find it difficult to choose among them, so that he focused instead on linking an act of violence with the painful realization of loss?
By comparison, the painting of Juno and Argus seems devoid of feeling, even the pain of loss that one might reasonably expect when an employer has lost a faithful servant. Absent is the sexual tension that Seiter evokes between Diana and Orion; absent also is the complex mixture of love and violence that the many versions of the story attribute to Diana. In Ferrari’s painting, everything is busy, filled with frivolous details in keeping with the self-involved dowager, Juno. The one touch of feeling I detect is in the decision to drape Argus’s corpse, a choice that forms a powerful contrast to Orion’s nakedness.