Niobe’s Hubris

Fragmentary Sarcophagus front and lid depicting the slaughter of the Niobids
end of the 2nd century CE
Marble (from Luna, modern Carrara, Italy)

Only the fronts of this sarcophagus’s lid and chest survive; together they show the slaughter of Niobe’s children by the gods Apollo and Diana (the Greek Apollo and Artemis). Niobe, a mortal woman with fourteen children, demanded more honor than Leto, mother of the two deities. To punish Niobe’s pride (hubris), Apollo and Diana killed all of her children.

On the lid of the sarcophagus, Apollo stands at left and Diana at right, both taking aim at the persons portrayed in the scene below. Between them are Olympian deities, including the central figure of Zeus, king of the gods. To the left of Zeus, Athena stands with Apollo and Diana, depicted as children. On either end of the relief is a bearded male head with an open mouth and wings in his hair. The heads may be personifications of the winds, but their meaning remains unclear.

On the chest, Niobe’s dying children gaze up at the vengeful gods. Older figures support the fallen children, including their father, Amphion, on the left. Presumably, the missing portion on the right showed Niobe herself. The myth was popular from the classical age of Greece to the end of the Roman Empire.

RISD Museum, Providence, RI

November 23rd, 2018

That jagged red line

Our stop at the Harvard Art Museums was an enlightening and entertaining experience. Walking through the galleries with their surprisingly large and varied art collection, it is easy to forget that this is, first and foremost, a teaching institution. For the Museums’ collections and exhibitions may be admired by the art loving general public but their main purpose is to serve as catalysts for teaching and research projects and encourage active learning and thinking across disciplines and cultures.

We leave the galleries with two ladies that, in my view, personify this intercultural dialogue; so far apart in time and style, yet so similar in their delicate, minimalistic technique; their differences and those red subtle details, only bringing them closer together.

Zhang Xiaogang (b. 1958)
Portrait, 1996
Oil on canvas

”Painted from a photograph, Zhang’s Portrait situates the subject in an eerie grey dreamscape. By imbuing the precision of photography with the modulated tones of a painting, Zhang imparts a surreal quality to the work. The portrait belongs to the artist’s Bloodline: Big Family series, based on family photographs taken before and during China’s Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s Zhang was part of a group of artists and philosophers opposing government repression and advocating for humanism, individual freedom and democracy. Despite its formal portrait conventions and the ubiquitous collared jacket, the painting represents an individual. Yet the notion of collectivity, central to the Cultural Revolution, still permeated Chinese society, as is evident in the repetition evoked by this series of paintings. The jagged red line, a reference to the bloodlines that tie a family together, cuts across the subject like a wound, imparting a subtle violence to the cool grey portrait.”

Ammi Phillips (1788-1865)
Harriet Leavens, ca. 1815
Oil on canvas

”Phillips was an itinerant, self-taught painter who spent much of his career travelling through small towns in the Berkshires and the Connecticut River Valley. An able marketer, he promoted his portraits in local newspapers as having been done ”in a correct style” with ”perfect shadows and elegant dresses in the prevailing fashion of the day.”
This portrait, among the most celebrated and widely recognized works in Phillips’ oeuvre, depicts the eldest daughter of the Leavens family of Lansingburgh, New York. She is portrayed as a slender, stylish young woman dressed in a gown in the Empire style, which as adopted from France.
With its simple geometries and pastel palette punctuated by flashes of blue, orange and red, the portrait looks forward to the modernist abstractions of the early twentieth century. Phillips’ work held particular appeal for American painters of that era.”

Harvard Art Museums, Boston

May 3rd, 2017