How Romance Created Clay Bas-Relief Portraiture

Behold the Beauty
By Lorraine Ferrier, Epoch Times
October 14, 2019 Updated: October 14, 2019

“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” said Shakespeare’s Juliet, expressing in a few short words a romantic sentiment that endures. 

In ancient Greece, a Corinthian maiden must have felt such sadness when her loved one was about to leave. According to the ancient Greek writer Pliny the Elder, she traced the shadow of her beloved’s face on the wall behind him as he slept. On seeing the outline, her father, the potter Butades of Sicyon, used the outline to build a portrait of his daughter’s beloved by pressing clay onto the surface of the wall, creating the first clay model portrait called a bas-relief sculpture.

Joseph Wright’s painting “The Corinthian Maid” takes us back to the moment when the young lady delicately traces the outline of her beloved on the wall as he sleeps slumped in a chair. She uses a stylus, normally used for writing on wax tablets. She’s unsure when she will see him again and doesn’t want to forget him. It’s a tender moment. It almost feels as though we, the viewers, are intruding.

The creation of clay bas-relief portraiture as seen in “The Corinthian Maid,” 1782–1784, by Joseph Wright. Oil on canvas. Paul Mellon Collection. (National Gallery of Art)

She tentatively perches on the edge of his seat, stretching out toward the wall while being careful not to wake him, just as one might stroke the face of a beloved while he or she sleeps. The tension is palpable; you almost want to hold your breath with her.

Ancient Inspiration

Wright was commissioned to paint “The Corinthian Maid” by the pioneering potter Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the famous Stoke-on-Trent pottery, Wedgwood. Established in 1759, Wedgwood pottery was, and still remains, world-renowned for echoing the shapes, styles, and motifs of the ancients—and for its decorative work using low reliefs.

Everything in Wright’s painting was carefully composed to acknowledge the ancient scene and the traditional craft that came long before Wedgwood put his hands to clay.

When Wright painted “The Corinthian Maid,” he was well aware of ancient artifacts, having spent nearly two years in Italy, from 1773 to 1775, studying and sketching archaeological sites. He used this firsthand knowledge of the ancient art and architectural sites, along with  ancient Greek pottery from Wedgwood’s private collection, to correctly reference the painting.

Wright used a color palette which echoes that of clay. The room is sparsely furnished. On the left, a curtain hides the light source that casts the shadow. Wright used this light source to evoke intimacy.

Cast of relief showing Endymion and his dog, possibly 18th century. Plaster cast.
Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy. (Paul Highnam/Royal Academy of Arts, London)

The young man in Wright’s painting is modeled on Endymion. Wright referenced a study he’d made in Rome of a sculptural relief featuring Endymion. The pose Wright chose for the youth is similar to a cast of Endymion at London’s Royal Academy of Art from the Capitoline Museums in Rome, although Wright painted the youth’s head upright in his painting. In the cast, Endymion also has his staff and dog; the dog perhaps symbolizes faithfulness.  

Legend has it that Endymion was cast into an eternal sleep, although accounts vary as to why. One common account is that the moon goddess Selene, with whom Endymion had 50 children, asked Zeus to put him to sleep so she could enjoy his beauty forever.

Endymion seems a fitting choice for the young Corinthian maiden’s love, for her intent seems similar: to remember her beloved in that moment, just like portraiture. 

“The Corinthian Maid,” by Joseph Wright is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

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