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Dido and Aeneas Going to the Hunt

On view

Dido and Aeneas Going to the Hunt

Artist: Joshua Shaw (English, 1776-1860; active United States, after 1817)

Date: 1831
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Framed: 36 1/2 x 49 1/4 x 4in. (92.7 x 125.1 x 10.2cm)
Overall: 26 1/8 x 38 1/2in. (66.4 x 97.8cm)
Signed: Lower right: "J. Shaw"
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 60.197
Label Text
In the early nineteenth-century landscape paintings depicting mythological themes were considered "high art." In this painting Dido, a Phoenician princess and queen of the great African city of Carthage, and Aeneas, a shipwrecked Trojan warrior fleeing the sack of Troy, are depicted on horses in the lower right corner of the painting's sunlit landscape. The legendary port city of Carthage appears in the middle distance. Nature--brooding and sensual--frames the scene. On the far left, within the shadows and sheltered by trees, is a statue of two lovers caught in a kiss. In the center of the composition, two young women watch a pair of dancers. Nearby, amid a gold urn and plates, sunlight shines through a glass vase filled with ruby red wine. The peacefulness of the scene shows no signs of the outcome of the Roman poet Virgil's tragic love story, as narrated in the "Aeneid," when Aeneas leaves Carthage to found the city of Rome prompting Dido, heartbroken and alone, to commit suicide.

Sandra Vázquez
Diversity Intern, 1997




Text Entries

Joshua Shaw, a painter of landscapes that often included exotic themes, was born in Lincolnshire, England, and as a youth was apprenticed to a sign painter. Largely self-taught, he had moved to Bath by 1802, and he began exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy in London. Sir Joshua Reynolds had died only a few years before, but the legacy of his Discourses—which advocated, among other things, that landscape should be ennobled by some scene from literature or history—lived on in the art of the aged Benjamin West. Shaw may well have seen such works by West as the Telemachus and Calypso of 1806 (Corcoran Gallery of Art), (1) a scene taken from Homer’s Odyssey which depicts the meeting between Odysseus’s son and the beautiful queen of the island upon which the Homeric heroes had become shipwrecked—a situation similar to the setting of Shaw’s Utica picture. Scenes from the Aeneid, specifically of the Dido myth, had long been popular, and one of Sir Joshua’s rare ventures into history painting was his Death of Dido of 1781 (Buckingham Palace).(2) In Shaw’s own day, however, the artist who most frequently explored the visual potential of the subject was J. M. W. Turner, whose series representing the events at ancient Carthage—executed between about 1811and 1817, the very years before Shaw left England for America—was influenced by the great seventeenth-century French painter Claude Lorrain. Turner transmitted to Shaw the Claudian idea of an idyllic landscape enveloped in the sun’s golden glow.(3)

Shaw arrived in the United States in 1817 and settled in Philadelphia where he became an active member of the art scene. Along with Thomas Birch, he established landscape painting in America several years before the rise of the Hudson River School in New York. In 1819 and 1820 he worked on a series that was engraved and published, titled Picturesque Views of American Scenery.(4) But Shaw never forgot the type of landscape painting he had learned in England—one enriched by literary themes and rendered in the style of the Grand Manner, and that was quite different from his simple views of American scenery.

Shaw’s Dido and Aeneas Going to the Hunt takes its subject from Virgil’s Aeneid.(5) After the fall of Troy, Aeneas, his son Ascanius, and their men are shipwrecked at Carthage (the great city seen in the middle distance of Shaw’s picture), which had been built by Queen Dido. At dawn one day Dido and Aeneas, bearing spears, ride out on a hunt; they are seen on horseback in the lower right, preceded by other members of the hunting party who sound great animal-headed trumpets. In the center two Maenads dance as a couple of shepherdesses look on, while a still life of gold utensils and a wine-filled glass attests to the wealth of this ancient land. At the left center a statue represents Cupid and Psyche, an image of the sensual love that is in store for Dido, for the clouds gathering in the upper right will soon bring a storm that forces her and Aeneas to take refuge in a cave, where their passion is consummated. Aeneas, however, eventually deserts Dido and the disconsolate queen throws herself upon a burning pyre.(6)

Shaw exhibited his Dido and Aeneas extensively, at the Boston Athenaeum (1831), the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1832), and the National Academy of Design (183 5), and he frequently painted subjects in a similar vein.(7) But his American patrons tended to prefer straightforward views of real American scenery, and few of them shared Shaw’s idyllic visions of landscapes in the Claudian mode.

 

Notes

1. See Dorinda Evans, Benjamin West and His American Students, exhibition catalog (Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, 1980), p. 147, fig. 111, for an illustration of the Corcoran painting.

2. Illustrated in Ellis Waterhouse, Painting in Britain, 1530-1790 (Baltimore: 1953; rev. ed., Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1978), p. 219, fig. 169.

3. The Utica painting may be compared to Turner's Dido and Aeneas of 1814 (Tate Gallery), illustrated in Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W Turner (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), vol. 2, plate 129. 220

4. Shaw’s designs for Picturesque Views of American Scenery were engraved by John Hill, and the nineteen colorplates were published by M. Carey & Son in Philadelphia in 1820, the same year that William Guy Wall’s Hudson River Portfolio first appeared.

5. Virgil, The Aeneid, translated by H. Rushton Fairclough (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 4,129-42.

6. Washington Allston’s Dido and Anna of 1813-15 (Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami), shows the grieving Dido and her compassionate sister, Anna, as Aeneas steals away to join his men aboard a ship that awaits him in the harbor. This painting is illustrated in William H. Gerdts and Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., “A Man ofGenius.” The Art of Washington Allston (1779-1843), exhibition catalog (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1979), p. 45, fig. 26.

7. Shaw’s Fantasy with Classical Ruins of 1851 (oil on canvas, 33 X 48 in., Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York, inventory no. 13687) shows that the artist was still absorbed with the pastoral, historiated landscape late in his career.

 

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