Aeneas Meeting Dido at Carthage, ca. 1875
In his memoirs, Henry Pearlman describes his acquisition of this Cézanne watercolor, which depicts a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid. Pearlman had already acquired a drawing of the same subject by the artist. When he saw a photograph of this watercolor in a book on Cézanne, he realized that it was related to his drawing—although the subject was misidentified. For years, Pearlman watched for the watercolor to appear on the art market, and finally a dealer in Zurich brought out the very work he was seeking.
Curator Laura Giles:
In both compositions, Cézanne conflates two episodes from the beginning of the Aeneid. In the first (from Book I), the Trojan hero Aeneas, shipwrecked off the coast of Carthage, meets its queen, Dido. This romantic encounter ends tragically with Dido's suicide, after Aeneas abandons her in order to fulfill his mission of founding Rome. Although there are significant differences, both watercolor and drawing feature the enthroned Dido on the left and Aeneas approaching from the right, with the sea indicated in the background. Aeneas is also accompanied by a shrouded and veiled figure representing the ghost of his wife Creusa, who perished in the destruction of Troy. It is her ghost that Aeneas invokes in Book II, as he recounts his misfortunes to Dido. Toward the end of his harrowing tale, he describes that Creusa's ghost appeared to him as he wandered through the devastated city, looking for her. At first horrified, he was then consoled by Creusa—and subsequently saddened when she disappeared into thin air, as he vainly grasped for her. Aeneas’s ambivalent reaction to her terrifying and poignant appearance may have had psychological ramifications for Cézanne, for whom women—as objects both of personal desire and artistic scrutiny—were at once elusive and intimidating. The conjoined themes of love and death, independently explored by Cézanne in numerous early paintings and watercolors depicting murder and sexual violence, would have appealed to him, as well as the supernatural juxtaposition of the living and the dead.