An Ancient Greek Painting on Fifth Avenue?

Until June 24th, you can see a rare example of an Ancient Greek painting: in New York, at the Onassis Cultural Centre.   

This ancient painting from Pompeii, which once graced the peristyle of the House of the Tragic Poet, depicts Agamemnon about to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, a disturbing story first told by Homer in the Iliad, Book II. This painting, however, follows the version performed in Athens in the late fifth century B.C., the finale of Euripides's play IPHIGENIA IN AULIS.  

Nor is this just any painting, but rather a Roman copy of a lost Ancient Greek masterpiece, The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by a late fifth Century B.C. master, Timanthes.  This painting in a middle-class Roman context is akin to us framing a poster of a world-famous painting bought at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a world without photography, moreover, the Pompeiian painting cannot have been a direct replica of the Greek original.  Rather, it is a copy of a copy of copies, where each step in the chain of transmission is mediated through the talent and knowledge of the individual copyist working from copybooks. Very few of these artisans would have been able to work from the original. 

And so we have here an echo of a lost Ancient Greek work that is also known to us through descriptions in Cicero and Quintilian.  Nonetheless, this Roman painting of a Greek painting probably does preserve for us something of the composition and the palette of Timanthes' work. 

As to the quality of the original, this reflection of Rubens has something to tell us:

"Who amongst us, if he were to attempt in reality to represent a celebrated work of Apelles or Timanthus, such as Pliny describes them, but would produce something absurd, or perfectly foreign to the exalted greatness of the ancients? 

Each one, relying on his own powers, would produce some wretched, crude, unfermented stuff, instead of an exquisite old wine, uniting strength and mellowness, outraging those great spirits whom I endeavor reverently to follow, satisfied, however, to honor the marks of their footsteps, instead of supposing—I acknowledge it candidly—that I can ever attain to their eminence even in mere conception,"

How central the Greek original was to the European artistic imagination can be readily studied in books and in articles such as this one: '"The Sacrifice of Iphigenia" in French and German Art Criticism, 1755-1757', H. Fullenwider, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 52. Bd., H. 4 (1989), pp. 539-549.

How central the Greek original was to the European artistic imagination can be readily studied in books and in articles such as this one: '"The Sacrifice of Iphigenia" in French and German Art Criticism, 1755-1757', H. Fullenwider, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 52. Bd., H. 4 (1989), pp. 539-549.

We also stumble onto Timanthes’s masterpiece in Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's charming (and riveting) painting, "A Collection Of Pictures At The Time Of Augustus", of 1867.  Here, while it clearly dominates the 19th century painter's composition, curiously, it does not hold the attention of the depicted Roman audience, where even the person closest to the painting is but absorbed by the ornament of its golden frame, not the painting itself. How much like museum-goers today, at the Metropolitan Museum, for instance, where the visitor is too often overwhelmed by a plethora of competing masterpieces accumulated over time.

You can watch an excerpt of one of Michael's discussing our painting context below: