This heavily-wooded landscape painting, by the French artist Jean-Victor Bertin (c. 1767-1842), alludes to the sad myth of Apollo and Daphne. In the dimly lit bottom-left corner of the painting, the two main figures of the myth can be seen. The first of the two is the Naiad nymph, Daphne, depicted as the fleeing woman dressed in blue. Daphne’s father was a minor river god, but even he would not be able to save her, for Daphne’s pursuer was the even mightier god, Apollo. Yet, in this particular myth, Apollo is not fully to blame for his aggressive actions. As the story goes, mischievous Eros (or Cupid) was the deity that set this unhappy series of events in motion.
According to myth, Daphne had the misfortune of being near Apollo and Cupid while the two archer-gods insulted each other in an argument over which of them had a better claim to their favorite weapon—the bow. Apollo won the verbal debate, but Cupid was eager to seek revenge through a palpable display of his power over desire. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE) described the event:
“[Cupid] beat his wings and cut a path through the atmosphere,
nimbly alighting upon the heights of shady Parnassus.
Once there he drew from his quiver two arrows of contrary purpose:
one is for rousing passion, the other is meant to repel it.
The former is made of gold, and its head has a sharp, bright point,
while the latter is blunt and weighted with lead [on] one side of the reed shaft.
That was the arrow which Cupid implanted in Daphne’s bosom;
the other was aimed at Apollo and smote to the core of his being.
Phoebus [Apollo] at once was filled with desire, but Daphne fled
from the very thought of a lover”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.466-475)
In Jean-Victor Bertin’s painting, Cupid/Eros decided to leave the scene of the crime, leaving his victims to continue their battle of escape and pursuit. According to the myth, Apollo was faster than Daphne, and he was steadily gaining ground on her. Yet, although Daphne’s physical strength and endurance was lacking, her adamant resolve to stay free of Apollo’s clutches remained unwavering. Daphne’s determination to get away, however, did not damper Apollo’s aroused mood. Ovid skillfully continued the tale:
“Flight made her all the more lovely; but now the god in his youthful
ardour was ready no longer to squander his breath on wheedling
pleas. Spurred on by desire, he followed the trail with new vigour.
Imagine a greyhound, imagine a hare it has sighted in open
country: one running to capture his prey, the other for safety.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.530-534)
In the end, the Naiad nymph had to take drastic action to escape her pursuer. As the story goes, Daphne thwarted Apollo’s desires by transforming herself into a laurel tree. Although Apollo could not fulfill his Cupid-inspired passions, his devotion to Daphne was said to have continued after her transformation through a newfound platonic affection for laurels.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.