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The Family of Darius before Alexander

Paolo Veronese

The Family of Darius before Alexander

Paolo Veronese
  • Date: 1565
  • Style: Mannerism (Late Renaissance)
  • Genre: history painting
  • Media: oil, canvas
  • Tag: famous-people, families
  • Dimensions: 236 x 475 cm
  • Order Oil Painting

The Family of Darius before Alexander is a 1565–1570 oil on canvas painting by Paolo Veronese. It depicts Alexander the Great with the family of Darius III, the Persian king he had defeated in battle. Although Veronese had previously painted a version of the subject, since destroyed, the theme had rarely been depicted by other artists before him. The painting has been in the collection of the National Gallery in London since 1857.

In 333 BC Alexander defeated Darius III, the last king of the Achaemenid Empire, at the Battle of Issus. Darius escaped capture, but his wife Stateira I, his mother, Sisygambis, and his daughters Stateira II and Drypetis were taken by Alexander. Alexander displayed forgiveness in victory. According to Plutarch:

"[He] gave them leave to bury whom they pleased of the Persians, and to make use for this purpose what garments and furniture they thought fit out of the booty. He diminished nothing of their equipage, or of the attentions and respect formerly paid them, and allowed larger pensions for their maintenance than they had before. But the noblest and most royal part of their usage was, that he treated these illustrious prisoners according to their virtue and character."

Although Darius's wife was renowned for her beauty, "Alexander, esteeming it more kingly to govern himself than to conquer his enemies, sought no intimacy with any of them." The painting focuses on a misunderstanding involving Sisygambis, Darius's mother, which was not mentioned by Plutarch, but was recounted by several late Classical writers, among them Arrian, Valerius Maximus and Quintus Curtius Rufus. According to Quintus Curtius's History of Alexander the Great, Alexander went to the women's tent accompanied only by Hephaestion, counselor to the king and his intimate friend since the two had been children. Sisygambis mistook the taller Hephaestion for Alexander, and knelt before him to plead for mercy. When her error was realized, Alexander magnanimously said that Hephaestion, too, was Alexander; this assuaged Sisygambis's embarrassment over her confusion, and served as a compliment to his friend.

The composition preserves this ambiguity, and reflects the confusion of Sisygambis. Generally the scholarship is in agreement that Alexander is the young man in red, who gestures as if in the act of speaking while referring to Hephaestion at his left, though some historians dispute that interpretation and reverse the two figures' identities. The continued uncertainty as to their correct identification is taken as evidence of Veronese's "pictorial intelligence."

While honoring the spirit of the story, Veronese took liberties with his interpretation of the narrative, which in the painting occurs in a palatial hall, not a tent. The splendid wardrobe is that of the Venice in which Veronese lived, rather than ancient Greece or the Far East. It has long been supposed that Veronese inserted portraits of his contemporaries into the painting, as was customary in Venetian history painting. While it has been suggested that the figures were modeled after members of the Pisani family, for whose estate the picture was made, it has alternatively been proposed that the kneeling girls are Veronese's daughters, and the courtier who presents them is the artist's self-portrait. Another interpretation has Veronese appearing in the form of the man standing behind Alexander, while it has been suggested that it is the patron Francesco Pisani who presents the family to Alexander. Recently art historian Nicholas Penny has written that the painting's characterizations of cultivated nobility were based on no particular models, and were products of the artist's imagination.

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