This painting, by the French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (c. 1780 – 1867), depicts the ancient Roman poet, Virgil (c. 70-19 BCE), reading sections of his epic poem, The Aeneid, to the family of Rome’s authoritarian ruler, Augustus (r. 32/27 BCE-14 CE). Virgil can be seen on the left side of the painting, dressed in white, and apparently reading from a scroll copy of his verses. Augustus—the sitting man caped in red—can be found on the right side of the painting, displayed in the act of supporting a woman dressed in yellow who has apparently fainted during the poetic performance. She, the fainting woman, would be Augustus’ sister, Octavia, while the red-gowned woman to Octavia’s side must be Livia, Augustus’ wife.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ painting is grounded in ancient Roman history, or at least its folklore and legend. As the story goes, the fainting portrayed in this painting was caused by a section of Virgil’s poem that described the realms of the dead. In particular, Virgil had worked a reference to Octavia’s deceased son, Marcellus, into his account of the supernatural landscape, and when the line was narrated by the poet, it caused Octavia to momentarily lose consciousness. The Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-122+), described the incident in his Life of Virgil, claiming that when the poet was invited to perform his epic for Augustus and the imperial family, “Virgil read to him three books in all, the second, fourth, and sixth. The last of these produced a remarkable effect on Octavia, who was present at the reading; for it is said that when he reached the verses about her son, ‘Thou shalt be Marcellus,’ she fainted and was with difficulty revived” (Life of Virgil, section 32). Such is the scene that Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres re-created in his painting.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.