This painting, by the French artist Jean-Victor Bertin (c. 1767-1842), is largely a landscape work that is dominated by a shallow stream running below a hill-top structure. Yet, within this scene of nature and architecture, Jean-Victor Bertin also included an allusion to ancient Greek mythology. In the foreground of the painting, two figures can be seen conversing by the bank of the stream. The man resting against the sloping earth is the Trojan prince, Paris, whose later seduction and abduction of Queen Helen of Sparta would one day start the Trojan War. This particular scene, however, predates the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans. Instead, it shows Paris with his first love and wife—the demigoddess or nymph, Oenone (or Oinone).
According to ancient mythology, Oenone was a daughter of the river god, Cebren, and she was a powerful woman with a supernatural affinity for healing and prophesy. Prior to the so-called Judgement of Paris incident (where Paris proclaimed Aphrodite to be the fairest goddess), Paris had been married to Oenone. Yet, when Aphrodite rewarded Paris by giving him divine aid in courting the world’s most beautiful woman (Helen), Paris eagerly left his wife to embark on his ill-fated seduction of the Spartan Queen. Oenone, naturally, did not take her abandonment lightly, and she decided to withhold her magical healing powers from Paris and the Trojans while she fumed over her poor treatment. Nevertheless, despite her feelings of anger and betrayal, Oenone still loved Paris. The Roman poet, Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), channeled these emotions in a section from his Heroides, where he mimicked how a reminiscent love letter from Oenone to her former lover might have sounded:
“Oft among our flocks have we reposed beneath the sheltering trees, where mingled grass and leaves afforded us a couch; oft have we lain upon the straw, or on the deep hay in a lowly hut that kept the hoar-frost off…The beeches still conserve my name carved on them by you, and I am read there OENONE, charactered by your blade; and the more the trunks, the greater grows my name. Grow on, rise high and straight to make my honours known!” (Ovid, Heroides, 5.1).
It is this mythical memory of Paris and Oenone lounging in the countryside that Jean-Victor Bertin re-created in his painting. As the story goes, one day Oenone’s love conquered her anger, and she ultimately decided to go offer her healing services to Paris and the Trojans. Unfortunately, her decision to forgive Paris came too late. A scholar known as the Pseudo-Apollodorus (1st-2nd century) recorded the conclusion of the story: “When Oinone had a change of heart and brought the remedies for his cure, she found him [Paris] already dead and hanged herself” (Library, 3.12). So ended the tragic life of Oenone.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.