Paris and Oenone, By Jacob de Wit (c. 1695 – 1754)

This painting, by the Dutch artist Jacob de Wit (c. 1695 – 1754), was inspired by the ancient mythological tale of Prince Paris of Troy’s first love. Prior to Paris’ seduction and abduction of Queen Helen of Sparta (which would start the Trojan War), Paris’ attention was focused on a demigoddess or nymph named Oenone (or Oinone). She was a daughter of the river god, Cebren, and had a supernatural affinity for healing and prophesy. The relationship between the two was quite serious, and it was claimed that Paris and Oenone may have been married in the time before the Judgement of Paris incident, where Paris served as judge in a divine beauty contest and proclaimed Aphrodite to be the fairest goddess, thereby gaining the love-deity’s favor. Unfortunately for Oenone, Aphrodite subsequently rewarded Paris with the promise of divine aid in courting the world’s most beautiful woman (Helen), prompting Paris to eagerly leave his current wife in order 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, recounting Paris and Oenone lounging among carved trees, that Jacob de Wit 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 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


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