Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Livia, and Octavia

Artist: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, Montauban 1780–1867 Paris)

Date: 1809/1819 (?)

Medium: Pen and black ink, graphite, gray watercolor washes, white gouache heightening, Conté crayon on blue paper

Dimensions: Sheet: 15 x 12 11/16 in. (38.1 x 32.3 cm)

Classification: Drawings

Credit Line: Purchase, Rogers Fund and Promised Gift of Leon D. and Debra R. Black, 2009

Accession Number: 2009.423


This newly discovered drawing by Ingres depicts the dramatic story of Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus, his wife Livia, and his sister Octavia. As the poet recites the words "tu Marcellus eris," he is abruptly halted by Augustus, for Octavia has just fainted into the emperor's lap upon hearing the name of her dead son. Livia, who is believed to have commanded the murder of Marcellus, appears impassive, while Augustus' advisors Marcus Agrippa and Gaius Maecenas whisper in the background. A nude statue of Marcellus presides over the nocturnal scene; illuminated by a flickering candle, it projects a ghostly shadow onto the wall at the upper right. Marcellus was Augustus' nephew and adoptive son. When he died, Livia's son Tiberius became heir to the throne.
The drawing is a wonderful example of Ingres' Romantic-classicist interpretation of antique subjects, fusing archaeological exactitude and carefully calibrated emotional drama. The artist used white highlights throughout the composition to illuminate and animate the figures and to direct the viewer's gaze within the scene. The blue paper further enhances the nocturnal lighting effects and lugubrious mood. A related painting by Ingres (Musée des Augustins, Toulouse) was commissioned in 1811 by General Miollis, Napoléon I's French governor in Rome.