Lebrun, Charles. Atalanta and Meleager. 1658, oil on canvas. 212.5 x 280.5cm. On Display: Walker Art Gallery
Story of the painting
This painting is based on the Greek myth called Atalanta and the Calydonian Boar Hunt. This myth is about the hunt of a boar and the story’s heroes. In this story, there are two major characters, Meleager the leader of the hunt and Atalanta, the woman whom the hero falls for her. In some versions of the myth Atalanta participates in the hunt.
Within the story Calydonia, is a city in which the goddess Artemis, sends in a big and wild boar as a punishment to the king, for not fulfilling his prophecies to her. Meleager then sets out to hunt and kill the boar, that was creating destruction to the region. Among the hunters were Meleager’s two uncles, another was Atalanta, an excellent hunter, with whom he falls in love with her.
When they finally have slayed the Calydonian Boar, and cut off its head, Meleager wants to present the head, to show his undying love to Atalanta. But his uncles dislike the idea of women having trophies. In retaliation, he kills both of his uncles. This painting is full of iconographical symbolism.
At the very top of the painting, there is a red flowing fabric that could be a banner, although it’s hard to say. This painting sets a scene, with interesting lighting, where the painter has the surrounding areas, the tonal values of the colours seem to be muted, whereas the main subjects in the middle, (Atalanta in yellow, and Meleager in red cloak) are in much more saturated colouration. Most of the muted colours are the greenery of the countryside. The symbolism of green as stated “both life and death in vernal green of life and the livid green of death.” (Cooper, 1978,) This means that the green implies or maybe even foreshadowing that there is death, to support this Greek myth.
It has a beautiful use of composition, with the rule of thirds, where everything is nicely balanced. So, the eye follows the painting from the top to the bottom, like reading a book. This helps to set the scene and tell a story and looking aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
We see that there are four people in this in a countryside landscape. Two people on the left, with Atalanta being showed the head of a boar by Meleager, with another hunter next to him. The boar has an iconographical meaning of “The boar’s head symbolises health and preservation from danger” (Cooper, 1978, page 43). By giving this gift to Atalanta, it’s telling her that with the death of the boar there is no more danger, literally and figuratively. Also showing his love for her.
The countryside has a charming mountain range in the background with different tones of blue. With the blue, meanings of trust, depth, and calmness. It’s anything but calm in this painting. This has a use of aerial perspective. When looking closely, next to Meleager’s left shoulder, there can be seen a pale dead body of a person laying on the rolling hill side. His uncles that Meleager has killed, when they disapproved of him representing the boar’s head to Atalanta. His uncles may have disliked the idea because “the boar is a masculine principle” (Cooper, 1978, page 43), this implies that a trophy of an animal is masculine, and therefore it is un lady-like for Atalanta to have one. Of course, with this Meleager disagreed by killing his uncles.
On the foreground of both left and right corner there are two dogs on each side. To help with the tracking of the boar during this hunt. As the dogs are a symbolism of fidelity, meaning loyalty, the painter may have put them there as a sign of irony. As we get to learn in the myth, that Meleager betrays his uncles, the very opposite of fidelity.
There is a pelt of an animal next to Atalanta. She is dressed in a stunning yellow dress. The painter has used some depth within the folds of the dress, which brings out the texture of the dress. The dress also leaves one of her breasts exposed. But she is not sexualised with this, looking strong and not helpless. The exposure of a breast has a symbolic meaning. “The bared breast is humility” (. Cooper, 1978, page 50) with this, the painter is saying that Atalanta is humble, she doesn’t think she is better than anyone. It represents her in a way that she needs to be rewarded, for Meleager’s love. Also, if she is truly comfortable with a bared breast surrounded by men. It begs the question of if she would have cared to not receive the boar’s head. And with this, sparing the lives of Meleager’s uncles. On her lap, there is a beautiful blue fabric (a cloak?) on her knees, with exquisite embroidery everywhere.
Her left arm resting on top of a wooden bow. The is what might be used to show who is Atalanta. In Greek mythology, a bow is usually associated with Artemis the goddess of animals and the hunt. Additionally, this could also mean the victory of the hunt, with the death of the boar. With Atalanta having a bow, it tells us that she a good huntress and lover of animals. This is further supported, with two dogs by her feet, looking protective of her, and a pelt of an animal behind her. “She challenges gender expectations” ( d’Entremont, 2020, page 5) It shows that she is not a meek young woman, with the knowledge of hunting. Which would have been subversive, for a woman of her time.
Whilst Meleager is dressed in a red cloak and blue tunics. Both of which have golden bejewelled, embroidery along the lining of the clothing. The cloak has a significant symbolism of dignity and position. Telling us, he is a leader of this hunt and has the dignity and with the red the courage to completete his task. Also holding a sword upright, used to kill the boar. The sword has the iconographical symbolism of protection and strength, in which Meleager, really proves of this during the hunt. What is significant about the sword, is that the blade is not silver but black. This may mean that it references to the deaths of his uncles, maybe in mourning for them, as the colour black is usually the representation of death and mourning. But it could also signify, Meleager’s power and strength.
J.C.Cooper, 1978, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, Place of Publication, Thames & Hudson. ISBN: 978-D-500-01201-7
See u in history/mythology, 2021, Meleager and Atalanta: The Hunt for Calidon’s Boar, place of publication, You Tube
Michela d’Entremont, 2020, Gender and Excellence in the myth of Atalanta, place of publication, Dalhousie University Halifax, Nova Scotia. Read pager 1-5, and pages 35.
Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1865, Poems and Ballads [and] Atalanta in Calydon, place of publication, The Bobbs-Merill Company, Inc.