Phaedra – Alexandre Cabanel

Life was so hard before TV. You really did have to find your own entertainment and the Greeks were masters at this. A half hour eastenders episode looks like nothing compared to the stories of Greek mythology and the story of Phaedra is no different.

Cabanel's depiction of Phaedra was beautifully painted in 1880. We see Phaedra lay on a day bed, naked with just a thin sheet thrown over her, defining the womanly shape of her hips. The emotion captured on her face is that of resolute despair. Her nurse sat at the side of the bed, while a concerned maid looks on. I really like the features of Phaedra's face in this painting. They are dark against her pale skin, her hair strewn about under her.

So why is she being such a diva?

Phaedra, was married to Theseus (he's the one that killed the Minotaur). Even though Phaedra and Theseus has 2 sons, Theseus also had another son, Hippolytus, with one of the Amazonian sisters Hippolyta or Antiope.

Now this may start getting a bit Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer, so I'll take it slow and hopefully you'll be able to follow the pentagon that occurred.

Aphrodite, had desires on Hippolytus, but he had resigned himself to a chaste life, dedicating himself to the hunt and Artemis. Aphrodite was scorned by this action.

Some depictions of the myth say that Hippolytus was in love with Artemis, but she was in love with her hunting partner Orion. As a result Hippolytus rejected all women, and is sometimes described as hating women…

The scorned Aphrodite, then put a spell over Phaedra to make her fall in love with her step son.

Phaedra, while visiting Hippolytus offers herself to him (Although in some stories it is her nurse that tells Hippolytus of Phaedra's passion for him) but Hippolytus rejected her.

In a fit of revenge Phaedra writes her husband a letter saying that Hippolytus raped her, but then when Hippolytus is confronted by Theseus he denies the claim, Phaedra panics that she will be found out as a liar and hangs herself, unknown to her, Theseus takes her word over that of his sons and prays to Poseidon (Theseus' dad). In hearing the prayers of his own son, Poseidon sends a Bull to scare Hippolytus' horses while he is out hunting. As the horses bolt, Hippolytus' feet become entangled in the reins and he is dragged to death.

So I believe that Cabanel has captured the moment of realisation of her actions. Rejected by her son in law and lying to her husband.

While not the most dramatic point of the story captured for the viewer, I think that this picture is more about the emotions felt, as once you know the story you can pin point this picture as the moment her world begins to crumble.

4 thoughts on “Phaedra – Alexandre Cabanel

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      1. Lol well when I was at school a friends dad said I looked like Jessica rabbit… I really don’t but it always stuck with me as it was quite funny if not a little creepy looking back at it now 😂


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