Ovid among the Scythians  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Ovid's banishment from Rome

Ovid among the Scythians (1859 and 1862) is the title of two oil paintings by French artist Eugène Delacroix. The second was painted after the first version's "unusual composition and strange scale of the figures provoked criticism, even among Delacroix's admirers such as Baudelaire and Gautier, although artists like Edgar Degas were deeply impressed." Delacroix "had first painted this subject in 1844 as part of the decorations for the ceiling of the Library of the Palais Bourbon in Paris". They depict the life of the Ancient Roman poet Ovid when exiled by Augustus to the Black Sea port of Tomis in south east Romania, in Scythia, where he spent his last eight years and wrote poems such as Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. Scythians were an Ancient Iranian people whose way of life was described by Herodotus in his Histories as "nomadic" and Ovid himself called them a "wild tribe".

However, the paintings show the Scythians treating the poet with sympathy and curiosity, and are a fine treatment of the theme of civilisation confronted with barbarity. Henri Loyrette wrote about it:

"Low but sometimes steep mountains covered with scrubby vegetation surround a still, shallow lake, boggy at its edges; scattered huts built precariously of wood and thatch suggest a pastoral and nomadic culture. In the foreground a man milks a large mare; behind him, various figures are casually placed, squatting, walking or standing still – a child, an old man, a nursling in its mother's arms, soldiers, resting shepherds. And, dolefully stretched out on a gentle incline, swathed in drapery, lies the figure identified by the painting's title as Ovid. He appears like a fallen meteorite on whom converge the friendly but startled inhabitants of this savage country. Delacroix has given him the pose of a Madonna in a Nativity [...]."

The first version was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1859, the last in which Delacroix participated. The composition reinterprets ideas that Delacroix had previously used in decorative compositions such as The Massacre at Chios, Death of Sardanapalus and Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople. At the time of its exhibition, the landscape with its mountains was "universally" praised, while the mare in the foreground was thought strange by some. Théophile Gautier, for example, although he admired the painting, called the mare la femelle du cheval de Troie ("the female of the trojan horse"). Maxime Du Camp was the author of the harshest criticism, calling the painting "a spectacle of irremissible decadence" and advising the painter "to return to the literary works that he loves and to the music for which he was certainly born". Baudelaire, in his last Salon criticism, called the painting "une de ces étonnantes ceuvres comme Delacroix seul sait les concevoir et les peindre" and took the opportunity to write about the life of an exiled poet and also quoting Chateaubriand's epic Les Martyrs to evoke "the landscape, its solitude, its calm charm". Zacharie Astruc, in his first Salon criticism, praised all the details in the painting: Ovid ("what noble elegance!"); the mare ("what color and air around it!"); the dog, which made him think of classical sculpture; the water ("a strange beauty"); and, above all, the landscape. In the catalog, by Delacroix himself, was written: "Some examine him with interest, others go home and offer wild fruit and mare's milk, etc., etc."

The second version, contrary to what one might think, is not an oil sketch but a completed version which develops many elements of the London work. Delacroix painted it with more vivid colors, replaced the barbarian with a shield on the back by a woman bringing food, and also closely integrated the figures and landscape in a manner that is more in keeping with a historical landscape. It was painted a year before his death, in 1862, most probably for a private collector. It was given to Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in honour of Philippe de Montebello, in 2008. It is the only painting by Delacroix in the Museum and, according to Gary Tinterow, the Metropolitan’s curator of 19th-century, Modern and contemporary art: "this is his late, final statement on a theme that interested him his whole life."




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Ovid among the Scythians" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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