Pierre-Narcisse Guérin Aurora And Cephalus
5 min

Gods And Poets In The Paintings Of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin

5 min

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774-1833) was a French Parisian-born painter whose subjects included erotic scenes from Greek mythology. Being a pupil of acknowledged artist Jean-Baptiste Regnault, Guérin would become a mentor for many masters such as Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault.


The artist didn't develop his personal manner but changed the topics and ways of representing them in accordance with changing tastes of his audience. For instance, in 1799, he created Marcus Sextus painting that gained its' popularity as allusive to the French Revolution. Marcus Sextus was a fictitious Roman general expelled by dictator Sulla. When the exile returned home, he found his wife dead, as depicted in the painting.

 Pierre-Narcisse Guérin

Fig. 1. Pierre-Narcisse Guérin by Robert Lefèvre, 1801 (Wikipedia.org)

 Pierre-Narcisse Guérin The Return Of Marcus Sextus,

Fig. 2. The Return Of Marcus Sextus, 1799 (wikiart.org)

 Pierre-Narcisse Guérin Aurora And Cephalus

Fig. 3. Aurora And Cephalus, 1811 (Wikipedia.org)

Eos Carrying Cephalus, Greek Terracotta from Attica

Fig. 4. Eos Carrying Cephalus, Greek Terracotta from Attica (Wikipedia.org)

Aurora And Cephalus

Being asked about the essence of Greek mythology, we'll probably tell of numerous affairs of Zeus (Jupiter). Nevertheless, the story is not only about queens and nymphs pursued by lascivious gods and satyrs. Goddesses could abduct attractive mortals as well. Cephalus was an Aeolian prince, the grandson of the god of wind Aeolus. He married Procris, a daughter of the founder of Athens, which didn't stop Eos, the goddess of dawn, from carrying him up to the skies like Jupiter's eagle did to Ganymede. Cephalus turned out to be a reluctant lover, though Eos gave birth to his son Phaethon (not to be confused with the son of Helios). He missed Procris so much that the goddess, fed up with his mourning, eventually returned him to his wife. As consorts swore never to cheat, Eos gave Cephalus rich gifts and sent him to Procris in disguise. Cephalus succeeded in seducing his wife, so she fled to Artemis in shame. Later, she returned with two presents from the goddess of the hunt: a magic dog and a javelin that never missed. Being an eager hunter, Cephalus went to the woods with these presents, and Procris, suspecting her spouse of infidelity, followed him secretly. Hearing the noise in the bushes, Cephalus threw the javelin and killed the one he pined so much.

 Pierre-Narcisse Guérin Aurora And Cephalus, study

Fig. 5. Aurora And Cephalus, study (wikiart.org)

 Pierre-Narcisse Guérin Morpheus And Iris

Fig. 6. Morpheus And Iris (Wikipedia.org)

Morpheus And Iris

Like Aurora and Cephalus, this painting was commissioned to Guérin by Russian Prince Nikolay Yusupov for his Arkhangelskoye Palace as a match for the previous image, that's why they're symmetrical. Both pictures were created in 1811. While the image we've examined earlier has a mythological ground, Morpheus And Iris isn't based on a Greek narrative and owns its content solely to the fantasy of Guérin. Iris is a goddess of the rainbow and a messenger of Olympic gods. Morpheus, as known, is a god who "shapes the dreams." Curiously, this deity is often depicted sleeping, which raises the question of who shapes his dreams when he dreams himself. The visual correspondence of this picture to Aurora and Cephal allows us to suppose that Iris came to Morpheus not merely as a message carrier. The cupid that raises a curtain is a detail pointing at the amorous nature of the scene as it accompanies any love affair depicted by European artists.

 Pierre-Narcisse Guérin Sappho seated

Fig. 7. Sappho seated (wikiart.org)

 Pierre-Narcisse Guérin Sappho On The Leucadian Cliff

Fig. 8. Sappho On The Leucadian Cliff (Wikipedia.org)

Sappho Studies

There are two depictions of ancient poetess Sappho by Guérin. The first, realistic, shows us a nude model with a lyre. The second, a classic one, is a portrait of Sappho sitting on a cliff. Already in ancient times, she was regarded as a great lyric poet. There are several sculptures and ceramic images of Sappho indicating that she was quite popular in Greece and Rome. Unlike Homer, Sappho did exist. She lived from ca. 630 to ca. 570 BC. Though we know nothing about her parents, from her poems, we can learn that she had three brothers. The figure of Sappho became a symbol of lesbian love due to her texts on the subject, however, according to the legend, her death was caused by unrequited love for the ferryman Phaon. She leaped from the Leucadian cliffs, and many artists from Guérin to Moreau depicted her mourning on the rocks.

Here's one of her poems:

Ode to Aphrodite

(translated by Julia Dubnoff)

Immortal Aphrodite, on your intricately brocaded throne,

child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, this I pray:

Dear Lady, don't crush my heart

with pains and sorrows.

But come here, if ever before,

when you heard my far-off cry,

you listened. And you came,

leaving your father's house,

yoking your chariot of gold.

Then beautiful swift sparrows led you over the black earth

from the sky through the middle air,

whirling their wings into a blur.

Rapidly they came. And you, O Blessed Goddess,

a smile on your immortal face,

asked what had happened this time,

why did I call again,

and what did I especially desire

for myself in my frenzied heart:

"Who this time am I to persuade

to your love? Sappho, who is doing you wrong?

For even if she flees, soon she shall pursue.

And if she refuses gifts, soon she shall give them.

If she doesn't love you, soon she shall love

even if she's unwilling."

Come to me now once again and release me

from grueling anxiety.

All that my heart longs for,

fulfill. And be yourself my ally in love's battle.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin The Bust of a Young Girl

Fig. 9. The Bust of a Young Girl (Wikipedia.org)

 Pierre-Narcisse Guérin Sorrow, study

Fig. 10. Sorrow, study (wikiart.org)

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Sources: wikipedia.org; www.uh.edu