The Comité Picabia has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Picabia dismissed the new classicism of the early 1920s, and especially its practitioners’ fondness for sources in Greek and Roman mythology, as “painting for antiquarians” (quoted in Modern Antiquity, exh. cat., J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 2011, p. 31). However, within several years, having left Paris in 1925 and settling into his Château de Mai in Mougins, Picabia, too, became smitten with the fables and lore of the ancient Mediterranean world. By late 1927 he was done with skewering the foibles and vanities of the Riviera nouveau riche in his ferociously Bacchanalian Monstre paintings. With the memories of early medieval frescoes still fresh in his mind from a recent visit to Barcelona, Picabia turned instead to the distant Mediterranean past, and conceived a novel, dreamlike vision of sensual form in paintings he called "Transparences."
Drawing on film-making and projection techniques he had practiced himself, and even the ordinary phenomenon of observing reflections while looking into a window, between 1928 and 1932 Picabia composed his transparences from the sinuous outlines of multiple images. Figures which he primarily superimposed one upon another–ignoring conventional perspective so as to create a simultaneous plastic effect in which the complex totality of pictorial illusion and iconographic allusion transcends the sum of the parts. “This third dimension, not made of light and shadow, these transparencies with their corner of oubliettes, permit me to express for myself the resemblance of my inner desires,” Picabia explained. “I want a painting where all my instincts may have a free course” (quoted in W.A. Camfield, Francis Picabia, Princeton, 1979, p. 239).
The transparence Picabia titled Xanthe evokes a story more than a millennium in the making, from the destruction of Troy circa 1180BC, through the Homeric oral tradition some four centuries later in the Iliad, to Virgil’s mention of the legend in his Aeneid, circa 19BC. The title refers to the river Xanthus, which traverses the Trojan plain. In Book XX of the Iliad, Homer recounts the battle between the Achaean hero Achilles and the river itself, as the god Xanthus. Achilles is victorious; his troops pursue the retreating Trojans back to their city, where he will soon kill King Priam’s son Hector in single combat.
Virgil was referring in Book I of his Aeneid to post-Homeric embellishments to the story of Troy, when, following Hector’s death, Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, leads her women warriors as allies of the Trojans in a second battle by the Xanthus. She encounters Achilles, who after a hard fight runs his sword into her breast. As she lies dying in his arms, he lifts her helmet, and—gazing into her eyes—falls in love with her. Picabia portrays the possibility of a great love thwarted by fate; Penthesilea and Achilles raise their arms to touch, but their hands do not meet.
Picabia based his figures of Penthesilea and Achilles on the marble sculptures Amazone blessée and Doryphoros (“Spear-bearer”) in the Louvre, Roman-period copies after two lost works by the 5th Century BC Greek sculptor Polykleitos. Picabia reversed the image of the Amazone in his painting. The large female head in Xanthe is also based on the Louvre marble. At lower left is a dolphin, is a creature sacred to the gods Aphrodite, Apollo, and Poseidon, all of whom favored the Trojans. The dolphin is also a symbol for Christ, as Picabia depicted in his gouache Jésus et dauphin, 1928. Picabia’s layering of imagery in pictorial space parallels the evolution of myth through time.