As Is Painting, So Is Poetry

Myth and Metamorphosis in the RISD Gallery

With the Ars Poetica lingering in my mind from the 80 lines I had translated the night before for my Latin course on Horace, I entered the Benefit Street entrance of the RISD Museum. As a part of the RISD Guild student gallery lecturer program, I had recently completed several months of training with the Museum curators and educators. Now I had to decide on a theme and objects for the 30-minute tour I would soon be periodically leading at the Museum.

Unlike many of my fellow gallery lecturers, I possessed no formal art history background. I’m a comparative literature major, and although I had long been reading about art history and exploring museums at every opportunity, what I knew on the subject came predominantly from my studies of literature, critical theory, and intellectual history.

Recognizing that any attempt to ventriloquize a tour from an art history perspective would turn out at best mediocre, I thought back to the previously mentioned Latin poetry that continued floating around in my head.

As is painting, so is poetry: one piece will strike you more with close inspection, and another if you stand at a greater distance. One loves the dark, while another, which does not dread the shrewd criticism of a judge, begs to be seen under the light. One delights after one look; another will please only after you have returned to it ten times.

In these lines, Horace equates poetry with painting in a discussion of how different pieces demand unique approaches to be understood. Poetry and painting do not require divergent methodology; rather, the specific work determines the approach—for example, one would study an Impressionist painting by Renoir more similarly to a novel by Ford Madox Ford than a Renaissance painting by Michelangelo. Taking this passage to heart, I investigated the galleries of the Museum as if I were scouring the Rockefeller Library for ideas for an open-ended literary-criticism paper.

In the galleries, I was reminded of something that further assuaged any doubts that I still possessed: the paintings around me contained ancient myths with which I was very familiar from my studies of Latin. Able to establish a narrative framework, I could then do a close-reading of these objects. I recognized a painting of Perseus and Andromeda by Giuseppe Cesari as a myth from Ovid, and from that point on, everything fell into place as I found a couple of other objects that I could pair with this work for my tour. I unhesitatingly named my tour “As Is Painting, So Is Poetry” for the passage that inspired it, and for the transformation of textual myths into visual form that it would center on.

The Augustan Poets—Ovid and Horace

Publius Ovidius Naso, almost always called Ovid, was a contemporary of Horace, and the two are considered to be not only two of the greatest Latin poets of the Augustan Age but of all time. The myths that inspire the works I will be talking about come from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Metamorphosis, the unifying strand of this work, is also evident in the form itself of these mutable myths, which had their origins in oral tradition. Transformations of medium are also discussed regarding the art objects in my tour.

Perseus and Andromeda, Giuseppe Cesari (Cavaliere d’Arpino), Italian, ca. 1592. Oil on slate

In Perseus and Andromeda, Perseus, one of lecherous Zeus’s many children with mortal women, is about to save Andromeda from the sea monster Cepheus. Andromeda has been chosen as a sacrifice to appease the beast, who was aroused by the hubris of her mother. Cassiopeia (not pictured in the painting) has incurred the wrath of Poseidon by bragging that she and her daughter were more beautiful than the Nereids, the daughters of Poseidon. Cesari has contracted the scene so as to optimize its intensity and exemplify his painting skills. He has condensed it to three characters, granting it more dramatic tension, and has substituted the winged shoes Perseus wore in Ovid for a flying horse, which required more skill to depict.

Plate of Orpheus Attacked by Maenads, Urbino, Italy; ca. 1540–1550. Tin-glazed earthenware

Italian, Plate (Orpheus Attacked by Maenads), ca. 1540-1550. Bequest of Susan Martin Allien

A plate of this quality would not likely have been used to serve food, and without holes by which to be hung, it probably was exhibited in a shelf or cabinet, displaying the sophistication of the owner. Curiously, the plate depicts the end of the life of the musician and poet of Thrace, a son of the god Apollo, where he is killed by a frenzied band of Maenads, who were female followers of Dionysius from Thrace. I like to imagine that the plate focuses on the end of Orpheus’s tragic tale so that the host had opportunity to present all of Orpheus’s story leading up to the death scene, thus demonstrating more knowledge.

Daybreak (Aurora and Cephalus), ca. 1760, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, French. Oil on canvas

Gabriel Jacques de Saint-Aubin, Daybreak, ca. 1760. Museum Appropriation Fund

The long, narrow shape of this painting suggests that it was intended to be hung over a doorway. Cephalus, a deer hunter and prince of Athens, resists the embrace of Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, who is cursed by Venus with a longing for the love of young mortals. The angered and embarrassed Aurora vows revenge on Cephalus and his wife, Procris, on whose account he resists the goddess. Interestingly, Saint-Aubin does not give any indication of the ensuing tragedies and hopeless ending of the original Ovid myth. By his omission, the portrait takes on an almost moral message about resisting the dangers of temptation by harkening back to such ancient exemplars of virtue.

Myth and Metamorphosis

Stemming from oral traditions, myths in particular lend themselves to being molded by artists, who have specific intentions reflective of personal and historical values. From Cesari’s dramatic and flashy demonstration painting in accord with the Mannerism of his age to the plate of the dying Orpheus’s function as an emblem of sophistication to Saint-Aubin’s moralizing, nostalgic, and allegoric above-door painting: these three depictions of myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses present especially vivid examples of how myth can be transported from one artistic form to another and translated to audiences with differing needs by artists with different intention.

Works Cited

Horace. Epistles Book II and Epistle to the Pisones (‘Ars Poetica’), ed. Niall Rudd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Anthony Stott (BA, comparative literature, Brown University 2015) is a curatorial intern in the RISD Museum’s Ancient Art Department and a former gallery lecturer.