Oil on panel
Dimensions: 23 × 47 1/2 inches (58.4 × 120.7 cm);
Frame: 31 × 55 3/8 × 3 11/16 inches (78.7 × 140.7 × 9.4 cm)
Bequest of Roger P. Clark
In an era that rejects the subjugating male gaze, looking upon an earlier one that blames women for their beauty and excuses men for their lustful response gives us pause. The story of the goddess Diana and the mortal Actaeon is instructive in how it demonstrates the transgressive power of vision, though now the male is punished, not rewarded, for his gaze.
Actaeon, while hunting with his hounds, blunders upon the naked Diana bathing with her nymphs. Forbidden to be seen naked by any man, the goddess curses him by flinging water his way; so that he may never be able to tell of his experience she transforms him into a stag to be devoured by his own dogs. Male transgression is punished; female fury and vengeance, celebrated.
Instead of a mannerist swarm and exuberant exhibitionism, Pickenoy's depiction is characterized pictorially as a morality tale, albeit one marked by a sense of uncertainty. The figures all appear young and inexperienced: Diana, more girl than goddess, shrinks away from Actaeon; even her extended arm seems hesitant. The nymphs cower behind her immobile; Pickenoy sympathetically shields their bodies from our view. Across the stream the errant Actaeon, a mere boy, pauses mid-stride, his arm raised in a gesture of defense, his transformation already underway.
Ovid’s text offers a duality between male and female, viewer and viewed, punishing and punished. Pickenoy reveals the ambivalence and dismay of Diana and the nymphs. The story of transgressive viewing ends with Actaeon punished. But notion of female victory is a fiction: the viewer for whom this image is made may enjoy it with impunity. (“Undressed: The Nude in Context, 1500-1750,” text by Lisa Pincus and presented at the Johnson Museum February 9-June 16, 2019)
NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.