This painting, by the Dutch artist Willem de Poorter (c. 1608-1648+), was inspired by the ancient historical figure, Queen Artemisia II of Caria (r. 353-351 BCE). Upon the death of her husband, King Mausolus (r. 377-353 BCE), widowed Queen Artemisia poured untold riches into constructing a magnificent tomb in which to house the remains of the deceased king. Artemisia hired the best sculptors in all of Greece to work on the monumental project, enlisting the help of men such as Scopas, Bryaxis, Timotheus, and Leochares. 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, was the historical woman and her story that inspired Willem de Poorter’s painting. Despite the out-of-place wardrobe choice used by the artist, the scene would have to be set between 353 and 351 BCE, for that was the time in which Artemisia 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.