Hero and Leander – William Etty

Love…it does funny things to people doesn’t it.  We know all the old adages…”Love is blind”, “Love will find a way”, “he who loves you will make you weep”… all of these can be attributed to the story of Hero and Leander.  

William Etty has captured the pinnacle moment of their relationship in this painting.  To give the painting it’s full title “Hero, having thrown herself from the tower at the sight of Leander drowned, dies on his body”.  Painted in 1829, Etty captures the tenderness of the relationship, entwined with the sorrow of the scene.  Note how Hero embraces Leander in her dying moments.

Leander fell in love with Hero at a festival.  Hero was a virgin Priestess to Aphrodite.  He wooed (yes…I’m using the word wooed) her with soft words and swore to her that he would swim the strait between Abydos and Hellespont to spend time with her every night.  As Hero lived in the tower of Sestos, she would hold a flaming torch at the top of the tower each night so that he could find his way.  

Eventually Leander persuaded Hero to make love to him, with the argument that Aphrodite, being the goddess of love would not want a virgin worshipped, how could she refuse that logic (love really is blind).  Every night of the summer Leander swam the strait, but as Autumn came a storm made the sea too rough to swim Leander was swept under and Hero’s torch was blown out.  Leander drowned and his body was washed up on the beach at the foot of the tower.  Unable to live without him, Hero throws herself from the tower and dies to be with Leander.

Personally, I think Etty depicts the whole story so well in this painting.  The main focal point, the two lovers, even in death are at peace with each other.  Their bodies modesty in clothing, but in no way erotic, more innocent, showing the true love.  Hero’s final embrace, as she holds Lenders face, yet the awkwardness of the rest of her body pointing to the decent from the tower.  

The sea is still foamy from the recent turbulence, but now gently laps the shore as it had delivered the body to her.  The sky is in autumn hues with a bank of cloud in the distance.  Finally way across the water you can see the shore of Abydos, where the fated Leander set off from.

Etty himself commented that this was the “finest of my fine pictures”.  This subject has been painted many times over, but none have captured the true heart and soul of the story such as this painting.

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