The canvas is signed and dated 1647, a year after Charles Le Brun, the future premier peintre du roi
under Louis XIV, returned to Paris from a period of study in Rome. In Paris, where he had been the pupil of François Perrier and spent time in the workshop of Simon Vouet, his work had caught the attention of Nicolas Poussin, who had returned to the French capital to work for the king in 1640. Le Brun accompanied Poussin back to Rome in 1642 and there studied the art of Raphael and Michelangelo as well as made drawings from the most famous antiquities [see Stéphane Loire, "Charles Le Brun à Rome (1642–1645): les dessins d’après l’antique," Gazette des Beaux-Arts
136 (September 2000), pp. 73–102]. This period culminated in his painting of a classical theme derived from the Roman historian Livy showing Horatius Cocles defending the Sublician Bridge from the Etruscans (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London). Like a number of other works, it was painted for the royal chancellor, Pierre Séguier (1588–1672), who had promoted Le Brun’s career, provided letters of introduction, and secured him an annual pension from the king during his stay in Rome. The picture was widely admired and even confused with the work of Poussin. The person for whom the Sacrifice of Polyxena
was painted is not known—the earliest record of it is in a sale in Dijon, France, in 1900 (as first noticed by Olivier Lefeuvre)—but its subject, too, is derived from classical literature: Ovid’s Metamophoses
(XIII, 439–80). Polyxena was the daughter of Priam, King of Troy, and his wife Hecuba. She was betrothed to the hero Achilles, who at their wedding was killed by Paris, the instigator of the Trojan War. Following the destruction of Troy the fleeing Greeks landed in Thrace, where the ghost of Achilles appeared, demanding the sacrifice of Polyxena. "He spoke, and the allied Greeks obeyed the pitiless ghost. Torn from her mother’s arms, of whom she was well-nigh the only comfort left, the brave, ill-fated maid, with more than woman’s courage, was led to the fatal mound and there was sacrificed upon the cruel tomb [of Achilles]. Self-possessed she was, even when she had been placed before the fatal altar and knew the grim rites were preparing for her; and when she saw Neoptolemus standing, sword in hand, with his eyes fixed upon her, she exclaimed: ‘Spill at last my noble blood, for I am ready; or plunge your sword deep in my throat or breast!’ (and she bared her throat and breast. Polyxena, be sure, would not desire to live in slavery!) ‘Not by such a rite as this will you appease any god! Only I would that my mother may know nothing of my death. My mother prevents and destroys my joy of death. And yet she should not deprecate my death, but rather her own life. Only do you, that I may go free to the Stygian spirits, stand back, if my request is just, and let no rude hand of man touch my virgin body. More acceptable to him, whoever he is, whom by my sacrifice you are seeking to appease, will my free blood be. But if my last words move any of you (‘tis the daughter of King Priam and not a captive maid who asks it), restore my body to my mother without ransom; and let her pay in tears and not in gold for the sad privilege of sepulture. She did pay in gold also when she could." She spoke, and the throng could not restrain their tears, though she restrained her own. Then did the priest, himself also weeping and remorseful, with deep-driven weapon pierce her proffered breast. She, sinking down to earth with fainting knees, kept her look of dauntless courage to the end. And even then, as she was falling, she took care to cover her body and to guard the honour of her modesty." (Loeb Classical Library, trans. Frank Justus Miller, 1965, vol. II, pp. 261–63).
Le Brun abridges Ovid’s text for dramatic effect, setting the scene near the tomb of Achilles. The strigilated sarcophagus, decorated with a mask, the foot of an urn, and a medallion with the profile of the warrior and draped with swags of flowers, serves as the backdrop, together with a distant landscape. Polyxena appears in the center right, covered by a transparent veil that leaves her breasts exposed. Between her and Hecuba is Neoptolemus, who raises a dagger to stab her while with the other hand he restrains her mother. Le Brun gives the composition extraordinary focus by conceiving Polyxena, her protesting mother, and Neoptolemus as an interlocked triad of figures. A second, helmeted soldier guides Polyxena to the tripod altar where she will be sacrificed and where a priest awaits her. With her hands she gestures toward the golden urn which her mother will later request to wash her fatal wounds, while her sorrowful face looks backward, toward her anguished mother. The expressions of the two women are brilliantly underscored by the contrasting drapery patterns—elegantly flowing in the one case, fluttering and agitated in the other.
In 1668 Le Brun was to deliver a lecture on the passions—the communication of emotional states through the expressions of the face and through gesture—at the Royal Academy. The faces of the three protagonists may be seen as an early formulation of Le Brun’s theories (see The Met, 68.513.6(6)
, for Henri Testelin's etching The Expressions
after Le Brun's drawings of heads). These expressive heads are contrasted, on the one hand, with that of the uncomprehending youth who holds a coffer with incense and, on the other, with the formal profiles decorating the sarcophagus and that of the austerely impassive priest. In these ways the picture testifies to the various interests and intellectual curiosity that made Le Brun the uncontested French genius of the second half of the seventeenth century, setting the stage for the later achievements of Jacques Louis David.
At least two of the details in the painting relate to an album with drawings of antiquities assembled by Le Brun in Rome for Séguier (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris). The incense burner held by the youth relates to one shown in folio 59, inscribed "Petit coffre ou tenoient leur encens," and the ladle-like vessel atop the tripod used in sacrifices—a simpulum—is found in folio 60 (see figs. 1–2 above, from Loire 2000 mentioned above). As pointed out by Ellenor Alcorn (2014; departmental archive files) the ewer derives from Enea Vico’s engravings of antique vases of 1543 (fig. 3). This kind of attention to archaeological details testifies not only to Le Brun’s interests but probably also to those of the first owner of the picture.
The picture created something of a sensation when it was discovered during an examination of the contents of the Hotel Ritz in Paris, where it decorated for a time the Coco Chanel Suite. Its acquisition by The Met was widely reported in the international press. However, the discovery by Lefeuvre (noted above) that it had appeared at a sale in Dijon in 1900 suggests the possibility that it may not have been painted for a Parisian patron. The apparent seller was an heir of the sons of Louis Bénigne Baudot (1765–1844), who formed an eclectic collection following the French Revolution (see Baudot in Oxford Art Online). The size and vertical format of the picture—quite unlike most of Le Brun’s contemporary history paintings—would be appropriate to a work intended for a position above a fireplace or set in a wainscoting. It is worth noting the popularity of other works of a similar scale, date, and format showing themes of ancient sacrifice. There is, for example, Le Sueur’s Camma Offers the Poisoned Wedding Cup to Synorix in the Temple of Diana
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), in which an elaborate vase culled from Enea Vico figures prominently in the foreground, or the same artist’s Caligula Depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother in the Tomb of his Ancestors
(British Royal Collection, Hampton Court; see Alain Mérot, Eustache Le Sueur [1616–1655]
, Paris, 2000, pp. 180–81, no. 32, pp. 228–29, no. 77). The latter was painted in 1647 for the residence of Claude de Guénégaud, the head of the Royal Treasury (trésorier de l’Épargne
) on rue Saint-Louis-au-Marais, Paris.
The picture was cleaned at The Met after its acquisition and underwent a technical examination, notably to determine slight changes to the format of the painting along the top and right sides. Assuming the original strainer crossbars were centrally placed, it seems that the four-inch depth of the addition corresponds approximately to the missing amount of the composition at the top. A slightly smaller amount appears to have been cut off the right side—up to about three inches.
Keith Christiansen 2014