This painting, by the French artist Charles Meynier (c. 1768-1832), was inspired by the ancient Greek goddess, Calliope, whose name loosely translates to Beautiful-Voiced. As the title of the artwork divulges, Calliope was one of the Muses, and her usual spiritual jurisdiction was over epic poetry. As the story goes, the Muses were the daughters of the high-god, Zeus, and the goddess, Mnemosyne (Memory). In terms of hierarchy among the sisters, the ancient Greek poet, Hesiod (c. 8th century BCE), claimed that Calliope was “chief among them all” (Hesiod, Theogony, approximately line 75). A later poet, the Roman writer Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), imagined Calliope playing music and reciting one of her epic tales with the following words:
“Calliope. She, with her flowing hair in ivy wreath,
rose up and strummed a few plangent chords to test her lyre strings,
then firmly plucked them to launch at once on the following lay.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 5.335-340)
Charles Meynier, in his painting of Calliope, agreed with Ovid that a wreath headpiece should be included in the poet-Muse’s wardrobe. Yet, Meynier and Ovid diverged on the Muse’s choice of musical instrument. Whereas Ovid and other ancient sources often described Calliope having a lyre, Charles Meynier’s painting of Calliope features a horn.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.