David to Delacroix: The Rise of Romantic Mythology

By Dorothy Johnson | Go to book overview

4
Mythological Madness and the Feminine
From Gros’s Suicidal Sappho to Delacroix’s
Murderous Medea

Of all creatures that have breath and sensation,
we women are the most unfortunate.

—MEDEA, in Euripides, Medea

In 1838, an anonymous critic writing about the Salon described Eugène Delacroix’s Medea Pursued and About to Kill Her Children (plate 11) in the following terms: “One is deeply moved by this deranged mother, with her haggard eye, pale face, dry, livid mouth, palpitating flesh and burdened breast.”1 What immediately strikes us in this description is the emphasis on the physiological manifestations of Medea’s madness. The “deranged” mother about to murder her two children evinces in her eyes, skin, and flesh the moral and psychological tumult within. Psychology and physiology go hand in hand. We will return later in this chapter to Delacroix’s maddened Medea as an exemplar of the use of myth to convey states of extreme physiological and moral stress experienced by women. Delacroix was heir to a long legacy of using the transparent window of myth to reveal important truths about modern mores and the human condition. And he also had precedents for the portrayal of mythic women maddened by thwarted desire and love. We will turn to some of these examples first.

We have already seen, in chapter 2, how artists used representations of mythic women to explore psychological and physiological states of stress and torment brought about by Eros, as in the visual manifestations of the depressed and suicidal Psyche. Pajou’s seated Psyche Abandoned (figure 57), depicted at the moment after Cupid abandons her and she loses everything, including her clothes, suffers inwardly from the pain of depression that leads her to contemplate suicide. This type of psychological suffering can lead to a state of abulia, an inability to act or to move forward in one’s life. Psyche will be rescued from this state and her adven-

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