The Education of Achilles
Barry, James (Irish painter, printmaker, and lithographer, 1741-1806, active in England)
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Citation:Pressly, William L., 'James Barry: Artist as Hero', London: The Tate Gallery, 1983, p 55-6, no 4
Publisher:The Tate Gallery
Description:'Chiron, a centaur who was renowned for his goodness and wisdom, was a teacher of a number of celebrated heroes. Here he instructs the youthful Achilles in the use of weapons, in the arts, symbolized by the lyre, and in mathematics, represented by the Euclidean diagram traced on the ground at the end of Achilles' robe. This subject was a common one, and Barry had even seen at first hand the Pompeian fresco of Chiron and Achilles when he visited Naples in January 1769. His treatment, however, is highly original in that it strikes a mysterious and evocative chord. For the first time in Barry's art the landscape plays an unusually prominent role in establishing the picture's mood. Barry purposely ignored conventional renderings of centaurs in order to elongate Chiron's torso so that he now towers over his pupil, who, by the same token, is unusually frail and effeminate, his gracefully elegant curves providing a youthful, male counterpart to Venus' beauty in 'Venus Rising from the Sea' (cgjc0766). Chiron points to the spear at the right, but the shadow of his hand ominously points to Achilles, who is fated to die in battle. The infant Hercules strangling the serpents appears on the shield, a subject that offers a heroic prototype for the youthful warrior. Over all hovers the mysterious, monolithic herm, on which is inscribed in Greek, 'All things: one and in one'. Although it is no longer possible to be certain, the ring encircling the inscription may indicate a serpent with a tail in its mouth, which, for Barry, symbolizes 'the eternity of the supreme mind or intellect'. The herm itself represents Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, and it is based on a passage in Plutarch's 'Isis and Osiris'. This is a far more personal and evocative use of antique imagery than anything being attempted by Barry's contemporaries, and significantly this work was the first history painting he sold in London.' (Pressly, 56) Barry painted another painting with the same title but a very different scene (cgjc0755)that dates to 1773, a year after this painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1772.
Dimensions/Extent:103 cm x 129 cm