This scene of ancient Greek myth and folklore was painted by Benjamin West (c. 1738–1820), an artist who was born and raised in Britain’s North American colonies, but relocated and lived in England before and after the American Revolution. West’s painting features Paris of Troy, dressed in green, and the runaway wife, Helen, whose affair with the Trojan prince sparked the Trojan War. Helen’s spurned spouse, Menelaus of Sparta, rallied his friends and allies to reclaim Helen from the Trojans. The scene above likely portrays a time in the war when Menelaus and Paris decided to have a duel to finally determine which of them would be Helen’s husband. Paris lost the duel, but his life was saved by the goddess Aphrodite. Although the Trojan prince’s health remained intact, his relationship with the queen of Sparta had become unstable. Paris’ dismal display in the duel caused Helen to begin second-guessing her decision to stay with the Trojan prince. The deities of love, however, disapproved of Helen’s lapse in infatuation, so Aphrodite quickly swooped in to push the queen of Sparta back into Paris’ corner. Although Helen resisted, she could not shake off the influence of Aphrodite. The ancient Greek poet Homer described the scene:
“Helen, child of Zeus, was terrified. She wrapped herself up in her shining white robe and went off in silence. Not one of the Trojan women saw her go: she had a protecting divinity to guide her. When they reached Paris’ superb house, the waiting-women in attendance at once turned to their tasks while Helen, goddess among women, went to her lofty bedroom. There the goddess herself, laughter-loving Aphrodite, picked up a chair, carried it across the room and put it down in front of Paris. Helen, daughter of Zeus who drives the storm-cloud, sat down on it but refused to look her husband in the face…” (Homer, The Iliad, Book 3, between lines 420-430).
Such is the scene that Benjamin West painted. It shows Aphrodite and Eros dragging the hesitant Helen towards Paris. Following the text, West painted Helen in white and made it so that she did not look at the Trojan prince. Meanwhile, back at the site of the duel from which Paris fled, Menelaus and the Greeks were outraged at the lack of Trojan compliance to the terms of the duel—the release of Helen and recompense for the war. Helen, however, was not relinquished by the Trojans and so the Trojan War continued.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited/introduced by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.