William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 1862, The Chrysler Museum of Art, Virginia, oil painting on canvas.
Being the focus of pursuit and vengeance is itself taxing and stressful—but when it comes from formidable beings that are relentless and malicious, it is hell—or Hades in this case. In Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s painting Orestes Pursued by the Furies, you see the Furies (Erinyes) with terrible, angry expressions surrounding Orestes who has committed matricide. His mother, Clytaemnestra, is in tow by one of the Furies seemingly to remind (or even torment) the already guilt-ridden Orestes. This painting gives a great depiction of the Furies at work but in combination with the play in which this scene derives from, Aeschylus’s The Eumenides, and their origins in Greek myths provide a better, if not slightly altered idea, of the Furies malevolent nature and ways of justice.
The Furies, as recounted in Hesiod's Theogony, were born from Uranus' blood that had fallen onto the earth after his castration or sometimes they are children of Night (Morford et al. 378). There are three sisters, Allecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone that are portrayed as having snakes in their hair and hands, carrying torches and scourges. Their function are "avengers of crime", chiefly murders and offenses against family, "blood guilt" (Morford et al. 378). Because of their association with punishment and darkness they are seen as associates of Hades and the Underworld (La Fond 10). The Furies have appeared in myths (or legends) like the one about Oedipus but were put into the limelight in Aeschylus' The Eumenides; which inspired William-Adolphe Bouguereau's painting Orestes Pursued by the Furies.
The Eumenides opens with Orestes attempting to escape the Furies and seeking help from Apollo, who has put the Furies to sleep at his temple in Delphi. Apollo vows to assist Orestes by getting him to Athens to be acquitted of a crime he himself commanded to be done. Clytaemestra scorns the Furies for losing their prey, Orestes, and pushes them to hunt him down. The rest of the play shows the “conflict between new and old concepts of justice” through the clashes between the older Furies and younger Apollo and Athena (Milch). The Furies support and enforce the old laws to the letter. Whereas Apollo and Athena attempt to reform justice to include reason and “the Court of the Areopagus” when dealing with crimes of manslaughter (Milch). At the end of the play, you see Athena establish a cult in Athens for the Furies in order to appease them—it’s at this point where you see the Furies transform in character and name. They transform from strict, ostracized, and feared creatures to accepted, revered, and seemingly swayed by this new progressive reason-based justice. On top of that they are dubbed the Eumenides, “the kindly ones”, not so much for their nature but for what one hopes they will be if worshiped (Morford et al. 380).
The depiction of the Furies by both Bouguereau and Aeschylus truly capture and demonstrate their character, attributes and how they were received by others; albeit in different ways. In Bouguereau’s painting it hones in on the pain, guilt and anguish of Orestes and the Furies malevolence; as well you see Clytaemnestra spurring on the torment of Orestes. All of the attributes, as described by Morford et al., are present: the darkness surrounding them, the anger exuded by both the Furies faces and postures, the snakes, and so on. But the painting has frozen the Furies and their natures in time and only gives one aspect of them, violence and inextinguishable anger, which is meant to instill fear and hatred in viewers. Aeschylus focused on the reforming of not only justice but the Furies' capability to be dynamic and themselves become reformed. The Aeschylus aimed to project reason, acceptance, and abstinence from violence in justice, the Furies and aggressors in society. All in all, one could garner a well-rounded concept of the Furies and potentially Greek ideas of justice through the art and literature of one poet and one artist.
In William-Adolphe Bouguereau's Orestes Pursued by the Furies, the man named Orestes, is shown holding his hands over his ears while his face is contorted with a painful expression. He is surrounded by four females, three of which are the Greco-Roman deities of vengeance and justice referred to as the Furies/Erinyes. These goddesses are called Tisiphone (avenging murder), Alecto (unceasing), and Megaera (grudging) and they are characterized–in this piece–by their hair, which swarms with snakes and they are pointing at a crime that has been done to the fourth woman beside them who has a knife sticking out of her chest. The woman to the far left, draped in red and white swirling cloth is Orestes’ mother. She is shown with her head tilted back and she is being supported in the arm of one of the Furies, presumably murdered by her own son.
Bouguereau's piece was heavily based off of the classical stories of Orestes in ancient Greco-Roman mythology. This story was very popular amongst literary writers throughout history which has resulted in many different renditions (Homer, Stesichorus, Euripides) making it complicated to pinpoint the exact source in which this artist drew from. The most common telling is that when Orestes was a young child his father Agamemnon got murdered by his mother's lover Aegisthus after he returned from the Trojan war. To save the Orestes from meeting the same fate as his father, a maid whisked him away and held him in exile. As he reached maturity his desire for revenge grew stronger with the influence of the God Apollo and his sister Electra, as they too wanted him to avenge his father. With the aid of his sister he not only got revenge by killing his father's murderer, but they also killed their mother Clytemnestra. As a result, Orestes was endlessly tortured and driven mad by the Furies for the act of matricide and sought aid from the Gods.
In this piece, I believe the most important aspect to be the presence and raw emotion displayed by the Furies. These deities were the offspring of Uranus and Gaia and came to be due to a crime between father and son, when Cronus castrated Uranus; which is very important in regards to their drive to avenge, as displayed in the painting. Overall, furies were crude looking creatures of torture from the underworld who punished men for their disruption of the natural order, with the most severe crimes and punishments being against those who partake in matricide or patricide. They drive their victims insane with a song that emphasizes their own guilt and fear, which is noted in Bouguereau's painting where Orestes was covering his ears in terror. Aside from the lack of defining characteristics of the furies, I believe that this piece was very well executed and stayed true to the known stories of Orestes and the Furies.
In Orestes Pursued by the Furies, Orestes is being tormented and humiliated by the Furies. The Furies includes three sisters, Allecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. As stated in Hesiod's Theogony, they were born from Uranus' blood that had fallen onto the earth after he was castrated (Morford et al. 378). They are known as the “avengers of crime,” particularly crimes on family members (Morford et al. 378). To the left of Orestes in the painting, his mother, Clytemnestra, is seemingly dead with a dagger protruding from her heart. The legend of Orestes states that he killed his mother and the Furies came to Earth to punish him for the murder of his mother.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau was a French academic painter who got much of his inspiration from Greek legends and made modern interpretations of classical subjects. He particularly emphasized the female human body in his artwork. William Bouguereau painted Orestes Pursued by the Furies in 1862. As seen in Orestes Pursued by the Furies, Orestes being belittled by the Furies is incredibly realistic. Orestes’s facial expressions show great terror and agony. It is also easy to identify who the Furies are, as they are surrounding Orestes with intents of vengeance for his mother’s blood. Painted in a natural composition, it makes the horror of the scene even more clear to the viewer.
Bouguereau was regarded as the greatest academic painter in his lifetime. He is known to have produced 882 works, but many were lost to decay or misplacement (William-Adolphe Bouguereau Biography, 2018). His uncle, who was a Catholic priest, influenced much of his work as he shared his passion of classical and Biblical subjects with Bouguereau (William-Adolphe Bouguereau Biography, 2018). Although Bouguereau was praised by many in his time, his work was often criticized by the Impressionist avant-garde. By the early twentieth century for being too “melodramatic and too heavy in its tone” (William-Adolphe Bouguereau Biography, 2018). Despite the criticism he received, many young aspiring artists followed his path in painting realistic traditional academic styles.
Known as the goddesses of vengeance, the Furies were avenging spirits who sought to restore justice to those slain unlawfully, especially those killed by family. In literature and art, they are often portrayed as daunting and wrathful as they pursue the guilty to madness. Orestes Pursued by The Furies illustrates the scene from Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon where the Furies pursue Orestes, who kills his mother to avenge his father’s death. Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s painting, Oresetes Pursued by The Furies, Bouguereau accurately depicts the vengeful and formidable nature of the Furies as they pursue Orestes through their appearance and the overall juxtaposition of the painting.
According to Greek Mythology, the Furies were born from blood from Uranus’ severed genitals that fell to the Earth (Ge). Although the number of furies can vary, the most important three are Allecto (anger), Megaera (jealousy), and Tisiphone (avenger). In “Traditional Elements of Hades Realm” from our textbook Classical Mythology, the furies are described as, “... the pitiless and just avengers of crime, especially murder; blood guilt within the family is their particular concern, and they may relentlessly pursue anyone who has killed a parent or close relative” (Morford et al. 380). They are often depicted as three winged goddesses who are, “... formidable, bearing serpents in their hands or hair and carrying torches and scourges” (Morford et al. 380). These aspects of the Furies are depicted in our piece, Oresetes Pursued by The Furies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, who drew inspiration from a scene in Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon where Orestes avenges his father, who was murdered by his mother, by murdering his mother. Before her body hits the ground, the Furies descend upon Orestes to take vengenace on him.
A saying that defines the morals and principles of the Furies is, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Morford et al. 380). They pursued those who kill unlawfully, particularly within the family, and drove the guilty to insanity. In the painting, we see that all three Furies pursue Orestes with frightening looks on their faces and snakes in their hair. They all surround a cowering Orestes, who is nude besides a white piece of fabric covering his modesty, and one of them even carries a torch as they descend onto Orestes. Bouguereau accurately depicts the Furies here, including key features of their appearance here with the snakes and torches, and captures their formidable nature by juxtaposing all three of them around Orestes. This positioning highlights their power as they all surround a shrinking and fearful Orestes. The viewer’s eye is drawn to the middle of the painting where Orestes is cowering and the multitude of the Furies’ wrath is amplified by this. This composition also has the viewers left wondering how Orestes could have incurred the wrath of these three beautiful women. Bouguereau is still able to portray the divine nature of the Furies’ by painting an eerie cast on their skin. Bouguereau also accurately depicts how the Furies dealt with families in particular by having one of the Furies support Clytemnestra, Orestes’ mother, as they surround Orestes.
A difference I found physically between the painting and what we know about the Furies from class material was that the Furies do not appear to be carrying scourges and they do not have wings as they typically do in literature and art. However, something important to address is that the Furies were not always as vengeful and frightening as depicted in the painting. The textbook describes in the last play in Aeschylus’ trilogy, “... the Erinyes are appeased and given a new name, the Eumenides (Kindly Ones), and worshiped thereafter at Athens” (443). From this we can see that the Furies are not entirely angry and vengeful but that they can also be viewed as kind after being appeased. Although it would be difficult to capture this in a painting since paintings can only depict one moment at a time, the painting only depicts the formidable and vindictive aspects of the Furies.
The depiction of the Furies through their appearance and the composition of Orestes, his mother Clytemnestra, and the Furies help to accurately portray the Furies and their principles in Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s painting, Oresetes Pursued by The Furies. Orestes Pursued by The Furies is considered one of the most iconic pieces of art of the Furies and Bouguereau’s accurate representation of the Furies contributes to why it’s deemed so iconic. The way that Bouguereau utilizes different elements of painting helps to not only delineate the specific scene from Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, but it also cements the Furies as the goddesses of vengeance and to personify this aspect of them.
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