This painting, attributed to the German artist Anton Kern (c. 1710-1747), was inspired by the family life of the legendary hero, Hector. Although he was best known as the champion of Troy and the mightiest warrior in the Trojan army, Hector was also a loving husband and a doting father. The painting featured above, rather than focusing on Hector’s role in the Trojan War, chose instead to showcase the tragic scene of Hector bidding farewell to his family before marching off to face the Greek coalition that was invading Troy under the leadership of formidable officers like the legendary Achilles and Odysseus. As the Trojan War was said to have been a decade-long affair, there would have been many farewells between Hector and his family as the hero went off to command the defenses of Troy. Yet, the painting likely draws most of its inspiration from a specific farewell scene featured in book 6 of Homer’s Iliad. As the story goes, that particular encounter began with both Hector and his wife, Andromache, frantically wandering their city, looking for each other. Andromache, tailed by her young son being held by a nurse, finally found Hector by the city gates. On their meeting, Homer wrote, “Hector raced out of the house and retraced his steps down the well-built streets. He had crossed the great town and reached the Scaean gate—his route out on to the plain—when Andromache herself, who married him with a rich dowery, came running up to meet him…and her waiting-woman carried the little boy in her arms, their baby son and Hector’s darling, lovely as a star…” (Homer, The Iliad, book 6, approximately lines 390-400).
It was an encounter with a wide array of emotions, with the family sometimes sharing in laughter and other times wetting their eyes with tears. Homer, especially while describing the interactions of the parents with their son, brought to life with his words the mixture of nervous laughter and foreboding sadness that the family was experiencing. Homer wrote:
“Hector reached out for his boy. But the child shrank back with a cry to the bosom of his girdled nurse, alarmed by his father’s appearance, terrified by his bronze helmet with its horsehair plume that he saw nodding frighteningly from the top. His father and lady mother burst out laughing. Glorious Hector quickly took his helmet off and put it, all shining on the ground. Then he kissed his dear son, dandled him in his arms and prayed to Zeus…With these words Hector handed the boy into the arms of his wife, who took him to her fragrant bosom, laughing through her tears” (Homer, The Iliad, book 6, approximately lines 465-485).
Such is the literary inspiration for the painting featured above. Just as was described in Homer’s poetry, the artwork shows tearful Andromache intercepting Hector in the city streets. Their young son can be seen in the background, being held up by a nurse. The scene seems to show the moments just before or after Hector said farewell to his son, who recoiled from the helmet’s plume. With the goodbyes said and the helmet placed back on his head, Hector prepared to depart for war. After some final words about how no one can escape death, followed by a statement that he would rather die a hero than survive as a coward, Hector finally pulled himself away from his family and marched off to continue his doomed struggle against Achilles and the Greeks.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited/introduced by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.