Gustave Moreau’s painting “Prometheus” (1868) depicts the ancient myth of the struggle between Prometheus and Zeus, and Prometheus’ resulting punishment. Moreau uses vivid imagery and fine detail to convey the dark relationship between the Titan and the Leader of the Gods.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Prometheus was a Titan who advised Zeus to take control and obtain absolute power in the Olympian world. The two ended up having a fall out over the issue of the welfare of mankind. Prometheus aided Man with the arts and science of civilization in order to help them progress while Zeus wanted to destroy Man, and create a new race. At a feast between mortals and gods, Prometheus tricked Zeus into eating the less desirable portion of the meal and giving the most desirable parts to those who Prometheus favored. Angered, Zeus revoked Man’s privilege of using fire, and ...view middle of the document...
Hesiod makes a point in his Theogony to note that Prometheus’ liver is immortal. This is why the eagle (or vulture, in Moreau’s painting) is able to eat his liver every day without end. Also, the ancient Greeks believed that the liver was the seat of the soul and intelligence, and that is another reason for its immortality. The equivalence of the liver and soul further enhances Prometheus’ psychological trauma, though the physical gnawing is minor in comparison.
In Moreau’s painting, Prometheus is sitting atop Mount Caucasus looking intently and defiantly toward Mount Olympus. One can assume his expression is due to the satisfaction of withholding a secret from the one who has made him a prisoner. The strong, fierce way Prometheus is sitting further displays his position against Zeus. He has a demeanor in the painting that is striking. He is depicted in a way that suggests that regardless of his predicament, he is still the one who comes out the winner.
In the painting, however, instead of an eagle there is a vulture perched next to Prometheus. Historically, vultures are known to be ruthless birds of prey. They typically go for prey that are sick, wounded, or helpless. Prometheus is really none of those, but due to the state that Zeus puts him in, he is indeed rendered helpless. He is chained to Mount Caucasus, and with no way to defend himself, the vulture is free to feast upon his liver.
Moreau was most recognized as being a Symbolist artist, which is quite evident in his “Prometheus” painting. He was noted as being very interested in mythology, and painted multiple works that related to ancient myths. His interest in the myth of Prometheus may be due to his own seclusive nature.
Hesiod. “Prometheus.” Theogony. 9 September 2011. <http://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodTheogony.html>
Gustave Moreau, Prometheus, 1868, Oil on canvas, 205 × 122 cm. Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris, France. (@ Wikimedia Commons)
Musee National Gustave Moreau. <http://www.musee-moreau.fr/index_u1l2.htm> 9 September 2011.