A masterpiece of French Neoclassical painting, this monumental oil on canvas by Auguste-Clément Chrétien is among the most significant paintings in this celebrated painter’s oeuvre. The composition depicts a famous episode in the life of the legend Achilles – his education by the centaur Chiron. Inspired in part by a famous ancient fresco discovered in Pompeii, the composition also pays tribute to Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s work of the same name, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782 and preserved today in the Musée du Louvre (Paris). Chrétien’s The Education of Achilles, composed for and exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1861, fits perfectly into the traditions of both Neoclassical and history painting. With his emphasis on symmetry, perspective, and narrative, Chrétien beautifully captures notions of both physical and moral ideals on canvas.
The legend of Achilles is one of the richest and oldest of Greek mythology. It was made famous by Homer in The Iliad, which helped to popularize the adventures of the young hero of the Trojan War. Son of Peleus, king of Phthia in Thessaly, and the sea nymph Thetis, Achilles is most remembered for his one weakness – his heel – which would eventually lead to his downfall. Chrétien’s composition, however, captures the warrior as a youth with the centaur Chiron, the legendary tutor of gods and heroes who instructed him in the arts of medicine, music, riding and hunting.
Achilles is represented standing, dressed in a simple lion’s skin tied around the neck, his body facing the viewer, his head turned in profile and holding the arch with his left hand. Chiron stands behind him, kneeling on his front legs to lower himself to the height of his pupil, and is giving him advice: with his left hand he directs the arrow while with his right hand he directs Achilles’ arm. The scene takes place on Mount Pelion in front of the Centaur Cave; the Aegean Sea and the Gulf of Thessaloniki can be seen in the distance.
Beautifully composed, the two figures are depicted in perfect juxtaposition: young versus old, man versus centaur, light versus dark. Yet, the result is a lyrical harmony enhanced by both the narrative and aesthetic presence of the piece. Indeed, Chrétien proves himself a master of Neoclassical proportion and symmetry, imbuing both figures with a strength and beauty all their own.
Born in 1835, Auguste-Clémeint Chrétien was a pupil of the French Neoclassical master Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864) and later Louis Lamothe (1822-1869) at the École des Beaux-Arts. He made his debut at the Salon in 1857 and remained a regular participant until 1882, presenting mainly portraits and historical subjects. Among his most important commissions was the decoration of the Abbey of Saint Germain des Prés in Paris.
Canvas: 51 3/16″ high x 64 3/8″ wide
Frame: 57″ high x 70 1/4″ wide
Salon, Paris, 1861, no. 621