- Date of Creation:
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- Current Location:
London, United Kingdom
- Displayed at:
Royal Academy of Arts London
Royal Academy of Arts London
A panoramic fresco showing Achilles dragging Hektor's body
Scenes from the Trojan War
The Iliad tells the story of the last years of the Trojan War. Set on the western coast of modern day Turkey, the city of Troy has been under attack from the Greek armies, lead by Agamemnon, for almost 10 years. The war started after Paris of Troy stole Helen from her husband Menelaus. The two secretly returned to Troy together and Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus, rallied the Greek armies of his allies and went to Troy in order to seek revenge. The Iliad covers only 45 days of the conflict.
On the 15th day when the two sides finally met, a duel was proposed to decide the war between the Trojan Prince, Paris, and the Greek warrior, Menelaus. Paris was losing the fight until he was rescued by the goddess Aphrodite, and returned to his love, Helen, within the walls of the city. Menelaus claims victory by default.
With the gods now involved in the outcome of the war, they are eager to restart the fighting and incite the Trojan archer, Pandaros, to fire an arrow into the Greek hoards.
A few days after the fighting had resumed, Hector proposed another duel to settle the battle once and for all, this time between himself and any warrior of the Greeks' choosing. Ajax was chosen and the duel commenced.
Nestor persuaded Agamemnon to approach Achilles, as the introduction of him and his Myrmidon warriors would surely sway the war in their favor. Agamemnon reluctantly agreed and sent Odysseys and Ajax to approach the hero. Achilles refused and thus the war continued.
Achilles' friend and fellow warrior, Patroclus donned the armor of Achilles and led the Myrmidons into battle but was killed by Hector. Achilles was forced to rejoin the battle and seek revenge for this. As Achilles caught Hector he struck a fatal blow through the gap in his armor to his neck. Achilles then dragged his body on the back of his chariot back to his tent in the Greek camp.
The Iliad ended with Hector's burial.
Although Flaxman's illustrations were highly successful the artist himself admitted that they were not designed to be released in the state we see them today. Instead they were preliminary drafts of work he proposed to development later on.
The subject of each print is based on a scene from Homer's Iliad and the style in which they are produced is very similar to Greek pottery which was being excavated in the late 18th century. It is likely that Flaxman drew inspiration from these pieces as he did from his earlier designs for Josiah Wedgwood.
Red-figure pottery was produced in Athens, Greece, from the 4th to 5th century B. C. in what's commonly known as the mid-to-late Classical period. Although this was 700 years after scholars believe the Iliad was written, many of the decorative elements of red-figure and the earlier black-figure pottery produced during this period show scenes from the epic poems of Homer.
Stylistically they are very similar to Flaxman's illustrations and it's highly likely that Flaxman came across such ceramics whilst working in Rome and London and used them as the basis for his own designs.
Homer's tale of the Iliad was written in ancient Greece and would have been passed down by scribes, poets and musicians from generation to generation. It wasn't until Alexander Pope translated the Iliad into English in 1715 that it was widely accessible to the British upper classes. It is this version which Flaxman is likely to have read in his father's workshop as a young boy.
All the plates created by Flaxman show episodes from the Iliad and are captioned with quotations from Pope's translation.
Flaxman: "... to convert the beauty and grace of ancient poetry to the service of the morals and establishments of our own time and country."
Illustrations, even more than other media, have a real story to tell because they are accompanied by text. Flaxman started producing illustrations for epic legends and books around the age of 17 while in Italy, his most successful pieces being Dante's Divine Comedy and Homer's stories of the Iliad and Odyssey.
In the Iliad he portrayed the story of the Trojan War and had to illustrate large battles and intimate personal moments between the main protagonists of the story.
In comparison to Flaxman's work in ceramic design many of his illustrations have a far more complicated composition. The illustrations represent scenes from the Iliad and had to contain many characters and emotions. The 35 plates which make up this piece demonstrate the epic nature of Homer's tale.
Use of color:
Flaxman doesn't use any color in these pieces and they were purposely designed to be produced in black and white so that they can be easily replicated when printed.
The use of horizontal lines adds shadow to the drawings which are really only two-dimensional.
Movement and Energy:
Flaxman creates movement in the stance of the subjects, particularly with the positioning of the horse.
Although Flaxman's figures are often only represented as an outline, he puts enough detail in them to create a sense of realism.
These illustrations are full of drama and action, in keeping with Homer's original material. One can almost feel Hector's agony as he is dragged around by Achilles' chariot.
August Wilhelm von Schlegel
Another of Flaxman's illustrations from The Iliad
Another of Flaxman's illustrations from The Iliad
John Flaxman was a prolific artist who created a vast range of sculptural and draft work during his career. His classical illustrations are certainly no exception, The Iliad alone included 35 separate scenes. Flaxman's illustrative work established his reputation, not only in his native England but also on the continent.
In more modern times Flaxman's work has been criticized for being cold and without feeling when trying to show narrative but its beauty is unquestionable.
Flaxman was considered one of the great artists of his time and a reputation built on works such as his Iliad illustrations led to commissions for similar work and a great deal of sculptural pieces too.
Flaxman was certainly well-liked by his fellow artists at the time and Canova in particular was happy to pass Flaxman's name on to his own patrons and clients.
The writer A. W. Von Schlegel was a friend of Flaxman's and obviously admired his work as a draftsman.
"... it seems magical that so much soul can live in so few and such delicate strokes. "
Modern Day Reception:
Recent exhibitions of Flaxman's work, for example in London, have led critics to look once again at an artist whose name is not as well-known as some of his equally gifted contemporaries. The Neoclassical style is certainly not as popular as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries which led to criticism simply because it is not in fashion, not necessarily because of its lack of skill.
Robert Essick and Jenijoy La Belle wrote of his designs: "The flattened, two-dimensional spaces of antique paintings and relief sculpture -- carefully retained in almost all of Flaxman's classical compositions -- stress a directness and simplicity free of the Baroque illusionism which Neoclassical artists were reacting against. Thus the Iliad and Odyssey plates were received not simply as visual delights but as philosophical statements. "
The simplicity of the Iliad illustrations mean that these works can seem much easier to produce than, say, an oil painting on a large scale. Although this is true to some extent, the complete freshness of Flaxman's art in comparison to what had gone before him shows what an innovator he was and that he was no lesser an artist because he was a successful illustrator.
Flaxman created several other series of Illustrations which were drawn in the same style as his Iliad series. They proved to be very successful not only in increasing the popularity of Neoclassicism in Europe but also in raising Flaxman's profile as an artist. Here are some of Flaxman's similar works along with works by other artists on the theme of Homer's Iliad.
Flaxman's Iliad Illustrations are currently held at the Royal Academy in London, where Flaxman was a professor from 1810 until he died in 1826. As the artist left no children they were passed to the Academy and have remained it its collection ever since.
As a child Flaxman learned the techniques of sculpting in his Father's casting shops. He also read many of the ancient classics by Homer and was exposed for the first time to ancient art of Greece and Rome.
In 1787 Flaxman travelled to Rome and it was there that he produced the work which was to make him the most well-known in his own lifetime, his illustrations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and later Dante's Divine Comedy.
The subject of each print is based on a scene from Homer's Iliad; the style in which they are produced is very similar to Greek pottery which was being excavated in the late 18th century. Red figure pottery was produced in Athens, Greece, from the 5th to 4th century B. C. in what's commonly known as the mid-to-late classical period. Although this was 700 years after scholars believe the Iliad was written, many of the decorative elements of red-figure and the earlier black-figure pottery produced during this period show scenes from the epic poems of Homer. Stylistically they are very similar to Flaxman's illustrations and it's very likely that Flaxman came across such ceramics whilst working in Rome and London and used them as the basis for his own designs.
Flaxman was considered one of the great artists of his time and a reputation built on works such as his Iliad illustrations led to commissions for more illustrations and large amount of sculptural work. He was certainly well-liked by his fellow artists at the time, the Italian Canova in particular was happy to pass Flaxman's name on to his own patrons and clients.
The Neoclassical period occurred during the late 18th and early 19th century in England and continental Europe. It occurred in a decorative and artistic sense as a reaction to the overzealous decoration and often fussy compositions of the Rococo and Baroque styles of the first half of the 18th century.
There was a heavy influence from Ancient Greco-Roman art which was entering England from Italy and Greece through archaeological excavations. Such material was commonly collected by members of the British upper classes or 'Grand Tourists,' who travelled round the continent for both pleasure and education.
Neoclassicism as an artistic style consisted of clean lines and uncomplicated designs, while sculptures copied the realistic nature of their Roman counterparts, producing beautifully ethereal figures in marble.
To find more information about Flaxman and his fascinating works please use the recommended reading list below.
• Bindman, David. John Flaxman, 1979
• Constable, W. G. John Flaxman - 1755-1826, 2006
• Simpson, Ian. Anatomy of Humans: Including Works by Leonardo Da Vinci, John Flaxman, Henry Gray and Others, 1991
• Irwin, David G. John Flaxman, 1755-1826: sculptor, illustrator, designer, 1979
• Hayley, William. An Essay on Sculpture: In A Series Of Epistles To John Flaxman, 2007