The Sacrifice of Polyxena, 1754
Oil on canvas; 28 ½ by 21 in; 72.5 x 53.5 cm; signed; held in a giltwood 18th century "Palladian"frame
Provenance: Thomas Worlidge, the artist's sale "conducted by Mr. Langford at his house in the Great Piazza, Covent Garden" April 5th 1754, lot 70, sold £3.3s
Literature : A catalogue of a collection of pictures : painted by Mr. Worlidge, Of Covent-Garden, 1754
This intriguing painting directly follows Giovanni Baptistta Pittoni’s compositon of “The Sacrifice of Polyxena” which is now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA. It appears to be so precise in that regard, even to the size of the canvas and the exact colours used, that we can assume Worlidge must have seen it before undertaking this version. Pittoni himself appears to have liked the subject matter and executed several versions, which all differ from each other whether it be in compositional structure or size. The Walters version has a provenance which dates back to only c.1900, and as we know Worlidge did not travel from Britain it is clear he made this copy whilst it was in an English collection, no doubt purchased by a nobleman in Italy travelling on the Grand Tour.
Pittoni’s versions are generally accepted as having been completed in the early 1730s, while this version by Worlidge is listed in the catalogue of his paintings for sale by auction in April 1754. It is an interesting addition to his known works having only re-surfaced recently and emphasizes the painter’s diversity and keenness to study works by his continental contemporaries and the Old Masters.
Thomas Worlidge was born in Peterborough, the son of Richard Worlidge, a lawyer. He received his earliest artistic training from the Genoese émigré Alessandro Grimaldi and from the engraver Louis-Philippe Boitard. His enthusiasm for the work of Rembrandt, which was shared by a number of influential artists and collectors in mid-eighteenth-century England, became a dominant force in his life and work. This can most obviously be seen in his own engraved works but can also be detected in some of the lighting effects in his oil portraits.
Polyxena, with whom Achilles fell in love, was the younger daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the king and queen of Troy. She was partly responsible for Achilles’ death, having promised him her hand if he raised the siege on the city, a false promise and a trap that would bring about his death. Following Polyxena’s wishes, Achilles came to make a sacrifice to Apollo, at which point Polyxena’s brother Paris shot an arrow into Achilles’ heel, his only vulnerable point, inflicting a fatal wound on the hero. After Achilles’ death his spirit presented itself to his son Neoptolomus and exhorted him to sacrifice Polyxena in the place where his tomb had been erected and as part of the spoils of war. The episode is related by Ovid in the Metamorphoses (Book XIII) in which the angry Achilles berates the Greeks for not having made a sacrifice to him on his death, for which reason he demands the sacrifice of Polyxena. The young woman was “snatched from the arms of her mother and led to Achilles’ tomb” where “preferring death to slavery she urged Neoptolomus to swiftly plunge the knife into her throat”.