This painting, by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Wicar (1762–1834), shows the poet, Virgil (c. 70-19 BCE), reading sections of his epic poem, The Aeneid, to the family of the Roman ruler, Augustus (r. 32/27 BCE-14 CE). Virgil is the man on the right side of the artwork, wearing tan and yellow garb. In the center of the painting, dressed in red, is the authoritarian ruler, Augustus. The fainting woman beside him, dressed with the purple and white cloth, is Octavia—Augustus’ sister. Supporting Octavia in the scene is likely Livia, the wife of the Roman ruler.
As the story goes, the fainting portrayed in this painting was caused by a section of Virgil’s poem that described the realms of the dead. In particular, Virgil had worked a reference to Octavia’s deceased son, Marcellus, into his account of the supernatural landscape, and when the line was narrated by the poet, it caused Octavia to momentarily lose consciousness. The Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-122+), described the incident in his Life of Virgil, claiming that when the poet was invited to perform his epic for Augustus and the imperial family, “Virgil read to him three books in all, the second, fourth, and sixth. The last of these produced a remarkable effect on Octavia, who was present at the reading; for it is said that when he reached the verses about her son, ‘Thou shalt be Marcellus,’ she fainted and was with difficulty revived” (Life of Virgil, section 32). Such is the scene that Jean-Baptiste Wicar re-created in his painting.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.