DAVID, Jacques-Louis
(b. 1748, Paris, d. 1825, Bruxelles)

Sappho and Phaon

1809
Oil on canvas, 225 x 262 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

With The Distribution of the Eagle Standards, David's official work for Napoleon ended, and now he undertook private commissions. The painting Sappho and Phaon was commissioned by the wealthy Russian diplomat and art collector Prince Nicolas Yusupov, who lived in Paris from 1808 to 1811.

Sappho was a poetess on the Greek island of Lesbos and her affection for the young women of the cult of Aphrodite was the origin of the word 'lesbian'. However, she fell in love with the beautiful youth Phaon, the protégé of Venus, and when he only briefly reciprocated her love, she leapt to her death from the rocks at Leucadia.

Though this theme of legendary or mythological lovers was similar to that of The Loves of Paris and Helen of 1788, in this painting the couple are not totally self-absorbed and instead look out at the viewer, Phaon staring intensely and Sappho intoxicated with delight at her lover's touch. Indeed, so transported is she that she still believes herself to be playing the lyre that is now held by Cupid. For this picture about the power of physical love and its effect on the individual, David gave his lovers an almost portrait-like degree of characterization, placing them very close to the edge of the picture plane and near to the spectator. To add to the almost unreal sense of mythology come to life he also bathed the scene in harsh daylight and used bright colours and hard contours.