The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

Ludvig Albelin Schou's Chione: An interpretation of the myth

  • Mogens Nykjær, arkivet.thorvaldsensmuseum.dk, 2001
  • This is a re-publication of the article:

    Mogens Nykjær: ‘Ludvig Albelin Schou’s Chione: Interpretation of model and myth’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 2001, p. 191-200.

    For a presentation of the article in its original appearance in Danish, please see this facsimile scan.


Summary

Ludvig Abelin Schou’s Chione is an enigmatic picture. The young painter has chosen a motif that is seen only very rarely indeed in pictorial art. The story of Chione is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A supremely beautiful mortal woman awakens the anger of the goddess Diana and is slain by an arrow from her bow. The arrow bores Chione’s all too loquacious tongue. There is no sign at all of this bizarre death scene in Schou’s painting. Instead, we see a woman lying there gracefully with an arrow in her breast. The inspiration for this idiosyncratic positional motif is traced to the Russian painter K. P. Brjullov’s colossal picture The Last Day of Pompeii, a painting that was famous far and wide during the 19th century.

But why has Schou omitted the one feature in the narrative that is more illustrative of Chione’s death than any other, that is to say the arrow in her tongue? Consideration is given to the question of whether the picture in reality represents a different mythological event. Other pictures have “wrong” titles. However, this possibility is rejected. Instead, a link is established to a Thorvaldsen relief which was formerly in the now demolished Palazzo Torlonia at Piazza Venezia in Rome. It represents Chione, and here, too, the arrow is seen not in her tongue, but in her breast. Schou could have known this work from a print in J. M. Thiele’s Den danske Billedhugger Bertel Thorvaldsen og hans Værker (The Danish Sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and His Works) or from later reproductions of the same print. Thorvaldsen has censored the dreadful notion of the arrow in the tongue. Or more likely, he simply did not know Chione’s story as told by Ovid, but took a short cut via the most commonly used encyclopaedia of mythology in the decades around 1800, B. Hederich’s Gründliches mythologisches Lexicon. This was published a new in 1770 and was reprinted many times. In it, Chione’s death is spoken of purely and simply as caused by an arrow. And where is an arrow placed with more graceful decorative effect than in a bared female breast? Both Thorvaldsen and Schou chose this possibility in their pictures of Chione.

Last updated 11.05.2017