This painting, by the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (c. 1741–1825), has been tentatively labeled by the Yale University Gallery of Art as Danaë and Perseus on Seriphos. If this title, indeed, represents what is depicted in the painting, then Fuseli’s artwork re-creates a story from ancient Greek mythology. To understand the backstory for this mother-and-son pair of Danaë and Perseus, one must backtrack to the myths and folktales of Argos and its royal family.
As the ancient Greek legends tell, there was once an Argive king named Acrisius (or Acrisios) and he was the father of Danaë, who is the woman featured in the painting. Their father and daughter relationship was poisoned, however, when King Acrisius learned of a prophecy that he would one day be killed by a child born from Danaë. When the king learned of this prophecy, Danaë had not yet had any children, so Acrisius tried to thwart destiny by imprisoning his childless daughter in a heavily-guarded underground bronze chamber. These precautions, however, simply made Danaë an easy target for the lusty high-god, Zeus, who paid a visit to the caged princess. From this divine visit, the famous demigod hero, Perseus, was born.
Once Acrisius became aware that the fated child, against all odds, had been born in the guarded underground bronze chamber, he lashed out against Danaë and the baby. A scholar known as Psuedo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) concisely summarized what happened next, writing, “[Acrisius] put his daughter into a chest along with her child, and threw it into the sea. The chest was cast ashore at Seriphos, where Dictys recovered it, and raised the child” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.4.1). Such, then, is the story behind how Danaë and Perseus arrived at the island of Seriphos. In the watery background of the painting, a figure in a chariot can be seen riding atop the stormy waves. This figure, perhaps, is the ancient Greek sea god, Poseidon, who happened to be Danaë’s great-great-great-great-grandfather.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.