This image is full of light and motion. A young man dashes up a hillside, pointing in the direction of a woman who appears to have tree leaves sprouting from her fingertips. It is a vivid image, not least because of the bold sense of movement that fills the scene.
I’ve looked at this painting many times, and for so long wondered how the artist managed to give it such energy. For the painting never seems to stay still. How can it be that Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne never seems to quite end?
One way of understanding how Tiepolo managed to conjure the movement is to notice how the painting is composed. Its structure relies on a distinct cross-shape that forms an X over the entire picture. Tiepolo built the image on a series if diagonal lines that constantly lead the viewer’s eye in different directions, linking the different elements of the picture into one overall X-shaped motif.
The painting, made in around 1760, is part of the Rococo tradition of Western art. Like many paintings of the Rococo tradition, its forms are made up of scrolling curves and sculpted mouldings, given with an additional air of lightness by the white and pastel colouration.
It can be seen from other paintings by Tiepolo that he often used diagonal lines of composition to maintain a similar flow. Different oblique angles within the picture meet up with each other, connecting various points of interest, as in the work Rinaldo Enchanted by Armida (above) painted in around 1745. With a little imagination, it’s possible to see an X-shape form underlying this painting too.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) was an Italian painter and printmaker from Venice who is best known for his large-scale frescoes on the walls and ceilings of churches and palaces. He also painted many small-scale works, often focusing on scenes from Classical mythology, as in Apollo Pursuing Daphne.
The story of Apollo and Daphne is as curious as it is tragic. In the painting, we see the god Apollo running up the slope. See how brightly dressed he is, wearing that billowing cape of yellow? His hair is golden too, and behind his head, a shining halo hangs in the air like the sun in the sky.
These attributes are Tiepolo’s means of depicting Apollo, who, as one of the twelve deities of Olympus, was the embodiment of youthful, physical beauty. In classical sculpture, he represented the ideal form of male physical perfection, and in Roman times became known as the god of the sun.
To understand the symbolic meaning of the painting, perhaps the first detail that is worth noting is the small cherub boy hiding in the left-corner beneath the folds of a white robe. This is Eros, the Greek god of love and sex, known as Cupid to the Romans. By firing arrows from his bow, Cupid was able to kindle amorous love in others, and to inspire repulsion too.
Cupid is really the genesis of the story being told in the picture. He is hiding because it was his mischief that brought about the rather tragic narrative that is unfolding in the main portion of the painting.
The story of Apollo and Daphne begins with a squabble between Apollo and Cupid after the sun-god had insulted the archery skills of the impish Cupid. In an act of revenge, Cupid fired a golden arrow at Apollo, the sort that aroused the fervour of love. In contrast, he fired a lead arrow at Daphne, the sort that turned love cold. Apollo fell in love with Daphne, who in response was repulsed and fled.
Daphne was a nymph and the daughter of the river god Peneus. Peneus is symbolised in the painting by an oar and an upturned urn spilling water. As Apollo followed Daphne, she called for her father’s assistance, “Help me, Peneus! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger! Let me be free of this man from this moment forward!” Thereupon her father transformed her into something that Apollo could no longer pursue: a laurel tree.
Tiepolo depicted the moment of Daphne’s metamorphosis, as her hands turn into branches, her legs become a tree trunk and her neck stiffens into bark. Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree can be seen as an act of eternal chastity, and gives the story its moral lesson: lust has been defeated by chasteness, purity has won over appetite.
When Apollo reached the tree, still enamored with his sweetheart, he mourned his loss, as Ovid wrote in the Metamorphoses:
Fairest of maidens, you are lost to me. But at least you shall be my tree. With your leaves my victors shall wreathe their brows. You shall have your part in all my triumphs. Apollo and his laurel shall be joined together wherever songs are sung and stories told.
This explains why the laurel is a symbol of Apollo and why winners of competitions in sports, music and poetry are to this day crowned with laurel leaves.
Tiepolo’s bright and dynamic painting gives the sense that the story is unfolding in front of us. It also captures something vital about Greek myth that may explain the longevity of these stories: their ability to be reinvented in different ages. For these tales, often strange or beguiling, have a maleable quality that make them constantly open to new and vivid representations.
Would you like to get…
A free guide to the Essential Styles in Western Art History, plus updates and exclusive news about me and my writing? Download here.