Kauffman’s work was informed by time spent in Florence and Rome, as well as Naples, Bologna, Parma and Venice, between 1762 and 1766. She made connections with the British community in Rome, and was invited to England by the wife of Joseph Smith, the British diplomatic representative in Venice. When Kauffman arrived in 1766, London was home to a thriving Neoclassical School, second only to that in Rome. She rapidly established a reputation as a leading high-society portrait painter and, on the establishment of the Royal Academy in 1768 (of which she was one of the two female founder-members), she turned increasingly to history painting.
The subject of this painting is taken from Homer’s Iliad and shows the moment when Hector, eldest son of King Priam of Troy, reproaches his younger brother Paris for retreating from battle against the Greeks at the sight of Helena’s vengeful husband, Menelaus:
‘But Paris was sick at heart when he saw who had met the challenge, and shying from death shrank back into the ranks. As a man in a steep ravine starts when he sees a snake; trembles in every limb, and retreats with pallid face, so godlike Paris, fearing Atreides, hid among the throng of Trojan warriors. There Hector met him, and showered reproach on him: Sinful Paris beautiful to look on, seducer and deceiver of women, I wish you had never been born, or had died before you wed. Such is my wish indeed, far better than disgrace us all, an object of men’s contempt. The longhaired Greeks must laugh out loud, and cry that our champion was chosen only for
beauty, devoid of strength and courage.’ (Book III: 1-57)
Kauffman exhibited a painting of this subject of vertical format at the Royal Academy in 1770 (no. 117; Chur, Bündner Kunstmuseum) and returned to it again in 1775 (St. Petersburg, Hermitage). This picture is closest in format and composition to the Hermitage picture, however, in that the action is reversed with Hector approaching from the left and Helena positioned on the right.
The great variety of Kauffman’s subject pictures, designed to demonstrate to the public and potential patrons the full range of her talents, is underlined in her submissions to the 1770 Royal Academy exhibition, which in addition to this Trojan War theme included: a subject from Roman history, Cleopatra Adorning the Tomb of Mark Anthony; a scene from the religious epic Der Messias by the German poet Friedrich Klopstock, Samma the Demoniac weeping over the ashes of his youngest son Benoni; and one of the first pictures of British history, Vortigern, King of Britons, Enamoured with Rowena, at the Banquet of Hengist, the Saxon General. The latter was acquired by John Parker (d. 1788) for Saltram (National Trust), where it still hangs with nine other works by Kauffman.
This picture was in the collection of one of Kauffman’s most devoted patrons, George Bowles (d. 1817), son of Sir Humphrey Bowles (d. 1784) and brother of Rebecca Rushout, later Lady Northwick (d. 1818). The Bowles family fortune derived from the manufacture of glass and George Bowles, who inherited The Grove, Wanstead, on his father’s death, was a significant patron of the arts and in particular of Kauffman. He was the largest collector of her works in England, amassing over fifty examples. On his death his collection and fortune passed to his sister Rebecca, Lady Rushout, whose husband Sir John Rushout became Lord Northwick in 1797 and their son assumed the name Bowles in addition to that of Rushout.
Bettina Baumgärtel has seen the painting at first hand and will be including it in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist’s paintings.