Herbert James Draper
- Herbert James Draper
signed l.l.: Herbert Draper
- oil on canvas
- 100 by 77cm., 39 1/2 by 30 1/2 in.
'Thus did I cry, and what my voice could not avail, I filled with beating of my breast; the blows I gave myself were mingled with my words... Then at last I let flow my tears; till then my tender eyeballs had been dulled with pain. What better could my eyes do than weep for me, when I had ceased to see your sails? Alone, with hair loose flying, I have either roamed about, like to a Bacchant roused by the Ogygian god, or, looking out upon the sea, I have sat all chilled upon the rock, as much a stone myself as was the stone I sat upon... Straight then my palms resounded upon my breasts, and I tore my hair, all disarrayed as it was from sleep.' Heroides, Ovid
A distraught maiden has run barefoot across the sands her eyes awash with tears. In her haste she has wasted no time in securing the robes which had been loosened the night before when she lay down on the shore to sleep in the arms of her lover. She has awoken to find him gone and has waded out into the ocean to search the horizon in vain for sign of his ship. She is the Greek princess of antiquity Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete and his wife Pasiphae, daughter of the sun-god Helios. She has been abandoned by the hero Theseus whom she aided in his escape from her homeland of Crete where he was to be offered as part of a sacrifice to Ariadne's half-brother the monstrous Minotaur. It had not been Theseus' choice to leave Ariadne; he had been compelled by Bacchus who desired her for himself and who would take the golden crown from her head and cast it into the stars to form a constellation to celebrate her beauty for eternity.
Herbert Draper was an artist drawn to the dramatic possibilities of classical mythology in the late nineteenth century, who often chose subjects centred on strong female characters. In 1904 he painted The Golden Fleece (Cartwright Hall, Bradford City Art Galleries) which depicted the moment when Medea condemns her brother Apsyrtus to be thrown into the ocean by the Argonauts as she and Jason flee the wrath of her father with the eponymous fleece. This picture had been critically acclaimed at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1904 and the following year Draper exhibited a similarly dramatic illustration of classical mythology, Ariadne Deserted by Theseus which was described as 'a truly magnificent work' (Liverpool Courier, 16 September 1905). The picture was bought almost immediately by a private collector and after the exhibition closed Draper was asked to paint a replica for a collector in America. However the owner of the first version was unwilling to delay delivery of his picture whilst Draper made a copy. Not wishing to lose a commission Draper suggested to the American collector that he would paint a variant of his Academy exhibit using the detailed figure sketches that he had retained. Thus the present picture was painted with an alternate composition to the 1905 Academy exhibit, focusing on the figure of Ariadne and with differences to her draperies and the rocks.
Ariadne was based upon drawings of various professional models but it was Ellen Wellsted that he chose for the finished head study and for sketches of her toned torso. She had also modelled for his figures of Juno and Demeter in one of the panels for the vast ceiling that he painted for the guild of Drapers in the city of London. Draper felt that her athletic physique was appropriate for his conception of classical goddesses and it is her taught muscularity that conveys her anguish in his figure of Ariadne.
Several Victorian artists painted Ariadne, including Frederic Leighton, George Frederick Watts and John William Waterhouse, in paintings of 1868, 1875 and 1898 respectively. They all painted her sleeping and unaware that she has been abandoned. Evelyn de Morgan, William Blake Richmond and Philip Calderon painter Ariadne on the shores of Naxos consumed by despair. Unlike Titian who painted Bacchus' rescue of Ariadne, nineteenth century artists preferred to paint the grieving abandoned Ariadne.
The present whereabouts of Ariadne Deserted by Theseus is not known and therefore the rediscovery of Ariadne adds greatly to our understanding of the themes that appealed to Draper in the most productive phase of his career when he painted the masterpieces that made him one of the most acclaimed artists of the early twentieth century.