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Hera reflected?

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An explorative interpretation of Carel Fabritius' Hera Seeking Refuge
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Dugal 1 Rebecca Dugal ARTH 3145 Final Paper May 10, 2012 Hera Reflected? Carel Fabritius’ Hera, painted with oil on canvas circa 1643, depicts a woman lying on her side. She is compressed into a small vacancy between the water and a large rock behind her. The woman wears a loose white shirt and her lower half is swathed in a peach fabric quite similar to the fair color of her skin. Her hair is long and blonde and a comb has just slipped from her hand. To her left are the majority of her belongings: a pomegranate shaped vessel, an ornamental piece atop a golden platter resting on a light blue folded sheet, and her empty slippers. Above her are two peacocks perched on the rock and to her left there is a parasol, also on its side. An animal, I believe to be an ibex, is running toward her. The entire upper half of the canvas is filled with fantastical fauna in the form of a forest, with trees lining an unclear path leading all the way out to the horizon line. On the bottom portion of the canvas is painted a reflection of the scene in a waterhole. The painting portrays the still moment of discovery. The lady has been startled and drops her comb as she looks up to find the source of her fright. It appears that whatever lights the painting has shaken her out of her grooming; her expression shows surprise. Her eyebrows are slightly raised and lips faintly parted. She looks something akin to a deer caught in the bright headlights of a car.
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Rebecca  Dugal  ARTH  3145  Final  Paper  May  10,  2012    

Hera  Reflected?    Carel  Fabritius’  Hera,  painted  with  oil  on  canvas  circa  1643,  depicts  a  woman  lying  on  her  

side.    She  is  compressed  into  a  small  vacancy  between  the  water  and  a  large  rock  behind  

her.    The  woman  wears  a  loose  white  shirt  and  her  lower  half  is  swathed  in  a  peach  fabric  

quite  similar  to  the  fair  color  of  her  skin.    Her  hair  is  long  and  blonde  and  a  comb  has  just  

slipped  from  her  hand.    To  her  left  are  the  majority  of  her  belongings:  a  pomegranate  

shaped  vessel,  an  ornamental  piece  atop  a  golden  platter  resting  on  a  light  blue  folded  

sheet,  and  her  empty  slippers.    Above  her  are  two  peacocks  perched  on  the  rock  and  to  her  

left  there  is  a  parasol,  also  on  its  side.    An  animal,  I  believe  to  be  an  ibex,  is  running  toward  

her.    The  entire  upper  half  of  the  canvas  is  filled  with  fantastical  fauna  in  the  form  of  a  

forest,  with  trees  lining  an  unclear  path  leading  all  the  way  out  to  the  horizon  line.    On  the  

bottom  portion  of  the  canvas  is  painted  a  reflection  of  the  scene  in  a  waterhole.  

   The  painting  portrays  the  still  moment  of  discovery.    The  lady  has  been  startled  and  drops  

her  comb  as  she  looks  up  to  find  the  source  of  her  fright.    It  appears  that  whatever  lights  

the  painting  has  shaken  her  out  of  her  grooming;  her  expression  shows  surprise.    Her  

eyebrows  are  slightly  raised  and  lips  faintly  parted.    She  looks  something  akin  to  a  deer  

caught  in  the  bright  headlights  of  a  car.  

 

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 Hera,  Carel  Fabritius,  circa  1643  

Without  a  title  given  by  the  artist,  over  the  years  scholars  come  up  with  one  themselves:  

Hera  taking  refuge  from  the  battle  of  gods  and  giants.    Though  there  is  little  written  about  

this  painting,  scholars  have  come  to  enough  of  an  agreement  on  the  identity  of  the  heroine  

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(Seelig  91).    She  is  believed  to  be  Hera  because  the  two  peacocks  above  her  are  signs  

associated  with  both  Hera  and  Juno,  often  portrayed  pulling  her  chariot  (Senzec  92).    They  

also  are  agreed  that  the  story  of  Hera’s  refuge  during  the  legendary  battle  most  closely  fits  

the  painting,  as  there  is  no  other  story  involving  her  that  could  apply.    This  painting’s  

narrative  is  likely  to  be  a  mythological  damsel  in  distress  not  only  because  of  its  connection  

to  the  myth,  but  most  notably  for  Fabritius’  connection  to  Rembrandt  van  Rijn.    He  was  

studying  with  the  Dutch  master  in  Amsterdam  when  he  painted  it  and  the  painting  does  

bear  a  noticeable  resemblance  to  Rembrandt’s  own  mythological  paintings,  the  Rape  of  

Proserpine  and  the  Abduction  of  Europa,  as  well  as  to  Rembrandt’s  technique  (Seelig  93).    

Hera’s  character  looks  awfully  similar  to  both  of  Rembrandt’s  blond  beauties.    She  appears  

quite  fair  and  full-­‐bodied.    I  speculate  that  this  painting  depicts  a  moment  similar  to  

Persephone’s  and  Europa’s,  right  before  Porphyrion  the  giant  attempts  to  rape  Hera  during  

the  battle  of  gods  and  giants.    This  painting  renders  the  moment  the  giant  reveals  himself  to  

Hera.    However,  I  digress.  I  believe  the  narrative  to  be  irrelevant  to  the  understanding  of  

Abduction  of  Europa,  Rembrandt,  1632  

Rape  of  Proserpine,  Rembrandt,  1631  

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this  painting.    It  is  the  technique  that  more  obviously  manifests  Rembrandt’s  influence  

(Seelig  93).    Fine  detail  is  used  sparingly  and  the  trees  are  somewhat  amorphous  and  

improvised.    There  is  a  large  variance  in  style  of  brush  stroke  and  the  palette  is  quite  

focused.    Fabritius  also  incorporates  Rembrandt’s  talented  understanding  of  light,  creating  

a  soft  radial  gradient  brightly  focused  on  Hera’s  figure  and  diffusing  outward.  

 This  detailed  and  masterful  representation  of  

light  was  something  unique  to  the  Dutch.    Karel  

van  Mander’s  concept  of  reflexy-­const  and  the  

Dutch  culture  of  painting  were  the  foremost  

authorities  on  the  dimensions  of  the  art  of  

reflection.    Though  reflexy-­const  encompasses  

much  on  how  light  and  color  reflect  off  of  and  on  to  objects,  the  highest  form  of  reflection  is  

spiegeling  or  mirroring  (Melion  73).    Van  Mander  discusses  how  nature  is  capable  of  

mirroring  and  representing  herself  through  reflective  surfaces  like  water  (Melion,  74).    

Fabritius  has  created  a  representation  of  a  naturally  occurring  reflection.      Taking  up  much  

of  the  lower  section  of  the  painting,  the  viewer  is  drawn  into  the  reflection  by  the  skeletal  

image  of  Hera’s  reflected  face.    With  its  eyeless  gaze  pointed  toward  the  viewer,  this  

surreptitiously  haunting  appearance  is  painted  out  of  the  shadows  used  to  create  the  more  

accurate  features  of  a  truthful  facial  reflection.    A  dark,  well-­‐placed  brush-­‐stroke  illustrates  

the  crude  mouth  and  completes  the  ghostly  visage.  

 Once  the  viewer’s  attention  has  been  called  to  the  reflection,  other  differences  between  it  

and  the  image  above  the  water  become  apparent.      For  simplicity’s  sake,  I  will  refer  to  the  

Detail  of  reflected  face  

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image  “above”  the  water  as  reality  and  the  image  in  the  water  as  the  reflection,  though  by  

no  means  am  I  asserting  one  is  more  real  than  the  other  or  that  either  is  real  at  all.  

 Detail  of  bottom  portion  of  Hera  1  (flipped)  

 Above  is  a  detail  of  the  reflected  image  flipped  upright  so  as  to  provide  a  different  

perspective  and  assist  in  identifying  and  seeing  past  the  more  deceptive  and  illusionistic  

details.    Overall,  there  is  a  shift  in  color  and  value.    In  reality,  Hera  is  light  and  almost  

glowing  in  a  heavily  yellow  and  green  palette,  viewed  above  as  below  the  shoreline.    But  

the  reflection  shows  a  darker  Hera  and  a  palette  much  heavier  on  peachy  shadows.    Hera’s  

body  is  smaller  in  the  reflection,  as  are  the  parasol  and  the  vase.    Even  the  shadows  on  the  

rock  suggest  it  to  be  smaller  than  its  counterpart.  The  animal,  however,  seems  not  to  have  

changed  size.    In  fact,  the  animal  seems  far  enough  away  from  the  shore  in  reality  that  it  

should  not  even  be  visible  in  the  reflection,  yet  there  it  is.    Though  the  reflected  Hera’s  face  

is  less  descript,  the  rest  of  the  reflection  appears  to  be  in  greater  detail,  especially  the  

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animal,  which  I  believe  to  be  an  ibex.  In  reality,  the  animal  is  fairly  phantasmal.    The  

reflection  shows  an  animal  that  is  much  sleeker,  seeming  to  leap  faster  in  its  new  predatory  

form.    Whereas  in  reality  the  animal  could  be  on  its  way  to  the  water  or  just  crossing  the  

path,  the  animal  in  the  reflection  is  clearly  running  toward  the  woman.    In  response,  she  

seems  to  be  dropping  her  comb  not  in  surprise,  but  in  defense,  preparing  herself  for  the  

attack.    Her  more  truthfully  reflected  profile  gazes  back  toward  the  ibex,  but  in  reality  it  is  

lifted  toward  the  light  source.    In  the  reflection  there  seems  to  be  much  less  of  a  light-­‐

source,  clearly  reminding  viewers  which  is  the  original  image,  and  that  the  two  images  are  

distinct.  

 Fabritius  has  presented  viewers  with  two  different  representations  

depicting  two  different  narratives.    In  one,  the  reality,  Hera  realizes  

she  has  been  discovered,  something  or  someone  threatening  has  been  

revealed.    In  the  other,  the  reflection,  the  viewer  can  see  the  threat:  she  

has  just  heard  the  animal  about  to  attack  her.    Everything  about  the  

painting  seems  to  point  in  two  directions.    The  peacocks  look  in  two  

different  ways;  one  toward  the  light,  referencing  the  unknown  threat  to  the  “real”  Hera,  

perhaps  ethereal  in  its  connection  to  the  light,  while  the  other  looks  toward  the  attacking  

ibex,  referencing  the  reflected  narrative.    The  path  depicted  in  the  painting  connects  the  

waterhole  and  the  horizon.    The  water  is  an  endpoint,  a  destination.    For  the  woman,  this  

path  is  both  an  avenue  for  escape  and  attack.    In  both  images,  she  is  blocked  in  both  by  the  

fallen  parasol,  which  in  turn,  seems  to  be  the  only  barrier  between  her  and  the  animal  as  

well  as  the  only  roadblock  impeding  her  escape.    The  tips  of  the  two  parasols  meet  at  the  

edge  of  the  water  to  point  viewers’  attention  back  toward  the  imposing  light.    The  peacocks  

Example  of  an  ibex    

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are  not  even  present  in  the  reflected  image,  perhaps  suggesting  that  the  reflected  woman  is  

someone  other  than  the  “real”  Hera.    Whether  the  reflection  reveals  an  alternate  reality,  or  

a  depiction  of  Hera’s  thoughts  and  feelings  or  something  else  entirely,  I  do  not  pretend  to  

know.    However,  though  the  painting  is  split  into  two  images,  they  work  cohesively  as  one  

painting  to  circuitously  point  the  viewer  in  two  different  directions.  

   Though  the  tromp  l’oeil  genre  is  a  testament  to  the  deceptive  nature  of  painting,  Fabritius  

has  gone  further  with  this  painting.    Where  tromp  l’oeil  paintings  aim  to  deceive  the  eye,  

attempting  to  pass  for  the  objects  they  represent,  Fabritius  provides  an  untruthful  

reflection.    But  who  is  to  say  which  is  truth?    Though  representations  in  general,  like  

paintings,  are  not  necessarily  free  of  bias  or  distortion,  the  same  cannot  be  said  for  

reflections.    One  cannot  see  oneself  without  the  aid  of  a  mirror  or  other  reflective  surface.    

Therefore  we  become  rather  accustomed  to  seeing  ourselves  the  same  way  in  each  

reflection.    However,  where  spiegeling  marks  the  threshold  between  reflection  and  

representation  (Melion  73),  Hera  does  not  fall  on  one  side  or  the  other;  Fabritius  

completely  mars  the  line,  disrupting  viewers’  expectations  by  providing  an  alternative  

representation  in  the  reflection.    But  once  the  distortions  and  differences  are  noticed,  those  

very  distortions  and  differences  cause  viewers  to  “reflect”  more  deeply  on  the  painting.  

 How  interesting  that  Fabritius  chooses  to  include  peacocks  in  this  painting.    Scholars  have  

assumed  they  are  a  reference  to  Hera,  and  I  do  not  dispute  that.    However,  I  believe  that  

they  have  a  further  relevance  to  the  image.    A  beautiful  animal  of  nature,  peacocks  have  a  

unique  skill.    They  are  an  example  of  nature’s  ability  to  represent  without  reflection.    With  

their  glamorous  plumage,  peacocks  can  create  an  image  on  their  own  without  the  use  of  a  

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reflective  surface  like  water.    Fabritius  does  something  similarly  impressive,  mirroring  

without  reflecting,  deceiving  while  encouraging  discovery.    As  Aristotle  claimed,  “all  men,  

by  nature,  desire  to  know”  (Tredennick,  3),  so  Fabritius  plays  on  this  desire.    And  as  he  

plays,  perhaps  he  suggests  with  his  depiction  of  Hera’s  anxious  surprise  and  her  reflection’s  

much  more  spooky  portrayal  and  frightening  predicament,  that  discovery  and  knowledge  

are  not  always  pleasant  things  to  desire.  

 Like  everything  about  Hera,  this  can  also  be  taken  two  ways.    Are  discovery  and  knowledge  

disappointing  or  frightening  in  themselves?  Or  is  it  frightening  that  the  desires  to  discover  

and  know  are  insatiable  and  impossible  to  ever  fully  realize?    More  frightening  are  the  

suggestions  this  painting  makes  about  truth.    Just  as  Fabritius  mars  the  line  between  

reflection  and  representation,  so  he  does  confuse  viewers’  understanding  of  the  truth.    Is  

there  a  higher  truth  hidden  in  plain  sight,  away  from  the  light,  an  alternate  to  all  that  we  

think  we  know?    The  unclear  nature  of  this  image  allows  viewers  to  find  meaning  in  this  

painting  with  an  infinite  number  of  dimensions,  a  perfect  painting  to  feed  man’s  insatiable  

and  never-­‐ending  hunger  for  knowledge  on  his  search  for  truth.  

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Works  Cited  

In  Hugh  Tredennick,  ed.,  Aristotle,  The  Metaphysics  Books  I  -­‐  IX,  The  Loeb  Classical  Library  (Cambridge,  Massachusetts:  Harvard  University  Press,  1933,  Reprinted  1936,  1947,  1956,  1961),  Pg.  3.  

 Melion,  Walter.  Shaping  the  Netherlandish  Canon:  Karel  van  Mander's  Schilder-­‐boeck  

(Chicago:  The  University  of  Chicago,  1991).  Pg  73-­‐74.    Seelig,  Gero.    Carel  Fabritius  1622-­‐1654,  ed.  Frederik  J.  Duparc  (Zwolle:  Waanders  

Publishers,  2004),  91-­‐94.    Seznec,  Jean,  The  Survival  of  the  Pagan  Gods:  Mythological  Tradition  in  Renaissance  

Humanism  and  Art,  1953.  p  92.      

 


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