Perseus and Andromeda, Frederic Leighton
Link is to a zoomable version on the Google Art Project; there is a downloadable version on Wikipedia, which also has a descriptive page for the painting; the original is in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
There is a tendency to think of heroes and dragons fantasy as a recent storytelling form because of the contemporary association of those kinds of stories with science fiction, but we’ve probably been telling each other stories like that as long as there have been stories.
The highly developed intertwined stories of Greek and Roman mythology provide a deep well of material for tales of gods, heroes and monsters (from which we draw our names for planets, stars and galaxies), and were a fertile source for the subjects of Victorian paintings.
Here, Frederic Leighton portrays Princess Andromeda, daughter of Cassiope, Queen of Ethiopia, who has been offered up as a sacrifice to Neptune, God of the Sea. Long story short, Neptune has been attacking the coasts of Cassiope’s realm in revenge for an insult to his daughters.
Andromeda, chained to a rock and in the clutches of the sea dragon, is being rescued by Perseus, riding the famed winged horse Pegasus, and fresh off his previous challenge of defeating the snake-haired Gorgon, Medusa. Perseus’s arrow has pierced the monster’s wing, and the creature twists its flaming jaws up in defiance and/or pain.
Leighton’s painting is large, almost 8 ft x 4 ft (230 x 130 cm) and the vertical format accentuates the drama. Perseus descends out of the sky in a sphere of light, which Leighton has suggested and also pushed into the distance with heightened value and lowered chroma.
The lightness and atmospheric effect of the representation of Perseus and his mount is in marked contrast to the intense darks of the foreground shadowed areas of the dragon’s wing and tail. Even the middle ground rocks are given an exaggerated sense of atmospheric distance, contributing to the perceived intensity of the foreground.
The dragon and the figure of Andromeda are even more overt studies in contrast, both in terms of light against dark and in the softness of the figure and her garments against the leathery texture of the dragon’s skin.
I love the way Andromeda’s hair blends with the red of the rocks and is balanced by them on the left. In much the same way, the white of the garment is echoed in the halo and highlight on Pegasus.
The rocks themselves look hard and unforgiving and the cliffs drop sharply into the sea. And for just that extra touch of drama, the current sweeps past the thin jetty of rock on which Andromeda has been chained, as if a danger in itself.
The dragon’s fiery mouth has the kind of smoke and floating sparks one might see in an actual flame, and its eyes look as if lit by their own kind of fire.