141.9 x 102 cm, Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment, 1976.292, digital image file (c) The Art Institute of Chicago. All rights reserved
LAURENT de La HYRE
Panthea, Cyrus, and Araspus, 1631-34
Oil on canvas
This painting presents the story of Cyrus, king of Persia, and his beautiful captive, Panthea, who is menaced by an amorous lieutenant of the king, Araspus. This is a moment of decision on the part of Cyrus, whose hand is dramatically pointing toward the soldiers in the background.
The painting bears many marks of a theatrical production adapted to canvas. The foreground is a typical stage composition of four differing characters: two heroes, one virtuous and the other flawed, a heroine and, as decorum dictated, a maidservant who accompanies her. The simple but nobly proportioned architecture recalls painted set backdrops. It frames a distant scene that suggests another dramatic device, namely the use of a messenger to report events occurring offstage. Both devices permit additional information to be introduced without breaking the tightly composed intimacy of the principal figures.
The relationship between theater and the visual arts came full circle when another picture of this narrative, also by de La Hyre, was chosen as the frontispiece to the taleís retelling by the contemporary playwright Tristan LíHermite. We arrive here at a dizzyingly intricate commerce between painting and drama: a play inspires a canvas that then, as book illustration, inspires readers of the play, and perhaps even inspires future playwrights, directors and set designers working on other dramatic versions.