The taming of a tragic heroine: Electra in eighteenth-century art

Bakogianni, Anastasia (2009). The taming of a tragic heroine: Electra in eighteenth-century art. International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 16(1) pp. 19–57.



The article explores two cases of the reception of the tragic heroine Electra in the visual culture of the eighteenth century. The British artist John Flaxman (1755-1826) created three drawings of the heroine, two based on Aeschylus’ Choephori (1795) and a third, unfinished one modelled on Sophocles’ Electra. Angelika Kauffman (1741-1807), a Swiss artist, portrayed Electra’s meeting with her sister in her painting Electra giving her sister Chrysothemis her girdle and a lock of hair from Orestes for the grave of Agamemnon (circa 1778). Flaxman’s drawings stress Electra’s devotion to her dead father Agamemnon and her love for her brother Orestes. Kauffman’s more unusual painting emphasizes instead the collaboration of the two sisters. As a female painter Kauffman chose to portray Electra in a more active role drawing on Sophocles’ source text in which she persuades her sister to replace her mother’s gifts with her own. Both receptions, however, chose to marginalise the more ambiguous aspects of Electra’s portrayal in Greek tragedy, especially her desire for revenge. Thus, in order for Electra to be acceptable to an eighteenth century audience she had to be ‘tamed’ and her passionate voice silenced.

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