Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


62 Alcestis and Admetus 1789

Pen and black ink and grey wash over some pencil approx. 22.3 x 40.7 (8 3/4 x 16) on off-white laid paper 23.8 x 41.7 (9 3/8 x 16 3/8)
Inscribed in grey ink bottom right 'John Flaxman 1789.' and beneath the figures from left in ink beneath the bottom edge of the design 'son & daughter | of Alceste & Admetus' 'Admetus' 'Alceste' 'Hercules' and in a different hand in pencil on the back 'm u'


Flaxman was the son of a sculptor and maker of plaster casts and models. He learnt to model and draw in his father's London shop before enrolling as a student in the Royal Academy Schools in 1769. Through Stothard (nos.64-6) Flaxman met William Blake (1757-1827), and during the early 1780s they had a patron in common. This was the bluestocking Harriet Mathew under whose guidance he probably started learning Latin and Greek. When, in autumn 1787, Flaxman and his wife set off on the obligatory visit to Italy to pursue his studies his luggage included 'some classical books' (Meteyard 1865-6, vol.1, p.506).

The subject of this drawing comes from the tragedy Alcestis, by the Greek playwright Euripedes, which dates from 438 BC. It was based on the legend of Admetus and his wife Alcestis. Apollo, the friend of Admetus, has persuaded the Parcae to let Admetus escape death if someone else can be found to die in his place. Only Alcestis is prepared to do this. In her long, intensely moving farewell to her husband, son and daughter Alcestis emerges as a woman of great nobility; she imposes one obligation upon Admetus for the sacrifice she is making for him - that for the sake of their children he must not re-marry. Admetus promises not to. Hercules, visiting Ademetus, sees his grief and resolves to bring back Alcestis from the dead. This he does, though he shows Admetus a veiled woman whom he says he has won in a competition. Urged by Hercules to lift her veil - the moment Flaxman depicts here - Admetus discovers that she is his wife. Hercules enjoins Admetus henceforth to treat his wife justly. The story, which is one of faithfulness on trial and the glorification of true love, dealt with a popular neoclassical theme. It gained a European-wide audience through C.W. Gluck's opera Alceste of 1767 (with a second 1775 version ) which is perhaps the saddest opera ever written.

In this design in particular but also in Flaxman's consistent interest in the subject we find epitomised one of the principal aspirations of the neoclassical artist. This is summed up in the words of the German art historian J.J. Winckelmann (1717-1768): 'there is but one way for the moderns to become great, and perhaps unequalled; I mean, by imitating the ancients' (Winckelmann 1765, p.1ff). With Flaxman the unaffected simplicity of the finished design shows the process to be more instinctive than self-conscious - the product of a sculptor's eye practised in gauging the exact significance of line and contour. Flaxman had already worked on this subject before he left for Italy when he made a large drawing of Hercules Rescuing Alcestis from Death (British Museum 1888.5.3.143). Once in Rome, some time between August 1788 and January 1790, clearly under the influence of what in 1793 he was to describe as 'the ancient sarcophogi [which] present a magnificent collection of compositions from the great poets of antiquity' (quoted in Bindman 1979, p.86), he was at work on 'a large bas-relief the figures 4 feet high of Hercules delivering Alcestis from Orcus [that is, the god of Hell]' (BM Add. MS 39780, f.45v.). But this drawing took its inspiration from another classical source - the Greek red figure vases of about 500-300 BC on which figures were drawn in outline and the background painted in black. Flaxman seems to have adopted this style by May 1788 when he referred to the fact that 'my drawings have surprised some of the best English artists here, who thought they were copied from the stories on Greek vases' (quoted in Constable 1927, p.31). This work represents a stage in Flaxman's development of an even purer linear style which he had developed by 1792 when he drew the designs for The Odyssey and Dante's Divine Comedy (engraved by Thomas Piroli in 1793), which made Flaxman famous throughout Europe [editions in Opp? Collection, T11186-T11220 and T11075-T11185].

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.160 no.62, reproduced in colour p.161