This painting, by the American artist Alice Pike Barney (c. 1857-1931), is a curious mix of family portrait and myth. Alice Pike Barney used the face of her daughter, Laura, as the model for the painting. As myths go, Alice made an intriguing choice in deciding which tale she wanted to bring to life with her daughter’s visage. She picked the tragic myth of the ill-fated Gorgon, Medusa. The Roman poet Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE) concisely summarized the unfortunate backstory of this unhappy being:
“Medusa was once an exceedingly beautiful maiden,
whose hand in marriage was jealously sought by an army of suitors.
According to someone who told me he’s seen it, her marvelous hair
was her crowning glory. The story goes that Neptune the sea god
raped this glorious creature inside the shrine of Minerva.
Jove’s daughter screened her virginal eyes with her aegis in horror,
and punished the sin, by transforming the Gorgon’s beautiful hair
into horrible snakes.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 4.794-802)
Such was the origin story of the snake-haired Medusa, whose gaze could turn people into stone. To further add to her woes, Medusa was fated to be slain and decapitated by the hero, Perseus. An odd myth, indeed, in which to feature one’s own daughter.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.