The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in a Museum

Cymon and Iphigenia

Cymon and Iphigenia Painting in Frame

“Cymon and Iphigenia” is painted by Lord Frederic Leighton in 1884. The subject of this painting is from a story from The Decameron, a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375).

This story is about a strong and handsome son of a nobleman who was also a “mere idiot or fool” who  was known as “Cymon” which means “the brute”. One day while walking the woods he discovered young woman fast asleep in a meadow under a tree and her beauty awakened his  soul.

The parable of beauty soothing the savage beast inverts the myth of Sleeping Beauty in which a man awakens a young woman to sexuality and adulthood; in this case, the woman’s beauty awakens in the male figure, Cymon.

Cymon and Iphigenia Close up

The expressiveness of Iphigenia’s complex, swirling drapery was influenced by Frederic Leighton’s study of the drapery on the statues from the The Parthenon Marbles, which were having an impact on many British artists of the time. Leighton’s love for the classical world is artfully presented in this masterpiece.

East pediment KLM Parthenon BM

In the original story, Iphigenia was mostly naked, however Leighton painting in his era choose to cloth Iphigenia in drapery that contoured her body beautifully ensuring that viewer’s gaze locked onto her figure. The drapery pays homage to Hellenistic sculpture and enhances her beauty and elegance. As can also study from the sketch below of Iphigenia, how Leighton explored the best way for her raised arms to be positioned to produce an open, vulnerable and alluring posture.

 'Study of Iphigenia for Cymon and Iphigenia' by Frederic Leighton, 1883

 A study of Iphigenia, black and white chalks on brown wove paper from Leighton House Museum.

“Iphigenia” is derived from Greek ιφιος (iphios) “strong, stout” and γενης (genes) “born”. Her name means “strong-born”, “born to strength”. In Greek myth Iphigenia was the daughter of king Agamemnon. After king Agamemnon offended the goddess, Artemis, the only way to appease the goddess was to sacrifice Iphigenia. Just as Agamemnon was about to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, she was safely transported to the city of Taurus.

1880 Frederic Leighton - Self portrait

Self-portrait – Lord Frederick Leighton (note “The Parthenon Marbles” in the background)

Leighton apparently spent months searching for a model to match his imagined ideal of Iphigenia for his intended portrayal in this painting. He found his model in a young actress, Dorothy Dene. Dene possessed what Leighton felt was  a classical Greek style beauty.  She had golden wavy hair, graceful arms and legs and she featured in several other works by Leighton.  Including : “The Bath of Psyche”, “Clytie”, “Perseus and Andromeda”, “Solitude”, “The Return of Persephone” and “The Vestal”.

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Essential Facts:

  • Artist:              Frederic Leighton
  • Created:          1884
  • Period:             Academic art
  • Media:             Oil paint on Canvas
  • Dimensions:  163 cm × 328 cm (64 in × 129 in)
  • Museum:        Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

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Essential Facts about the Artist:

  • Name:                 Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton
  • Born:                   3 December 1830 – Scarborough, England, United Kingdom
  • Died:                   25 January 1896 (aged 65) – London, England
  • Known for:        Painting and sculpture
  • Famous work:  “Flaming June”
  • Movement:        Academicism, Neoclassicism and British Aestheticism

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“There is nothing more Australian than spending time in somebody else’s country.”  Australian Anon

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Acknowledgement: This page is dedicated to Jennifer M.

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Photo Credit:1) By GordonMakryllos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Frederic Leighton (Leighton House Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) Frederic Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 4) By GordonMakryllos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons 5) © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons