This painting, by the French artist Simon Vouet (c. 1590-1649), depicts Queen Artemisia II of Caria (r. 353-351 BCE) overseeing plans for the spectacular tomb of her late husband, King Mausolus (r. 377-353 BCE). Queen Artemisia poured untold riches into constructing the tomb, hiring the best sculptors in all of Greece—such as Scopas, Bryaxis, Timotheus, and Leochares—to work on the monumental project. The tomb, known as the Mausoleum, was a masterpiece of architecture and art, listed among the Seven Wonders of the World. Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79), a Roman scholar, mentioned the Mausoleum in his Natural History:
“[Scopas, Bryaxis, Timotheus and Leochares worked on] the Mausoleum; such being the name of the tomb that was erected by his wife Artemisia in honour of Mausolus, a petty king of Caria, who died in the second year of the hundred and seventh Olympiad. It was through the exertions of these artists more particularly, that this work came to be reckoned one of the Seven Wonders of the World… The east side was sculptured by Scopas, the north by Bryaxis, the south by Timotheus, and the west by Leochares; but, before their task was completed, Queen Artemisia died. They did not leave their work, however, until it was finished, considering that it was at once a memorial of their own fame and of the sculptor’s art: and, to this day even, it is undecided which of them has excelled” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 36.4).
Such, then, is the history that Simon Vouet re-creates in his painting. It shows Queen Artemisia II with certain architects or artists, going over the plans for the soon-to-be world-famous Mausoleum. The scene would have to be set between 353 and 351 BCE, for that was the time in which she was directly involved in overseeing the construction of the great tomb. Unfortunately, as was stated in Pliny’s quote, Queen Artemisia did not get to see the completed wonder. Nevertheless, as construction was allegedly completed by 350 BCE, just one year after her death, Queen Artemisia likely knew how magnificent the tomb would be.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Natural History, by Pliny the Elder, translated by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley (Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, 1855), republished by Delphi Classics, 2015.