The story behind my painting Artemis and Actaeon
The story behind my painting Artemis and Actaeon

The story behind my painting Artemis and Actaeon

I painted this large 1m x 1m painting of Artemis and Actaeon as part of my mythology series. In this series I am examining the mythological stories from a female perspective. I am trying to get to know the women in the stories, to empathize with their situation and try to discover their feelings and motivation. In the process of doing this I’m exploring my own viewpoints on how women behave in modern society and I’m finding out more about my own thoughts and feelings, my experiences and how they have shaped who I am.

This painting depicts the story about Artemis, the worrier goddess from Greek mythology. There are various versions of the story According to the most popular version, provided by Callimachus and later used by Ovid for his re-telling. Artemis was bathing naked when she realised, she was being watched by a hunter called Actaeon. When she discovered him, she was furious and turned him into a stag, he was then ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

When I depict mythological stories I don’t like to do it in a very literal way, I prefer to just give some clues to the story but I also want it to appeal separately so that people can make up their own minds about what it’s about. In the painting you can see Artemis bathing in the water with a hunting dog, whose gaze is directed towards a fleeing stag. Actaeon is in stag form apart from one eye which is a clue to his human origins. There is a golden arrow in the water to represent that Artemis is a hunter and really that the whole painting is about desire being like a hunt where there are winners and losers.

Ellie Contreras painting 'Artemis and Actaeon'

Title: Artemis and Actaeon

Medium: Oil on canvas

Size: 1m x 1m

When I began thinking about how I would depict Artemis I was struck by why Artemis would react in such a harsh and disproportionate way just to me seen naked by a man.

For one thing with Artemis was a huntress and a very proud and self-sufficient woman, as such she is defying the social norms of female domesticity. She would therefor naturally be wary of a man’s ability to claim her as a wife and take away her independence. If she were raped and become pregnant as is very common in Greek mythology this would be very compromising to her status. Artemis valued her virginity even her name “Artemis” is related to her virginity and the Ancient Greek word for “unharmed” or “pure,”. Even without the threat of rape, to be exposed to a sexualised assessment of her naked body against her will would have been an unacceptable loss of dignity for the goddess.

I realised that the aspect of the story I could identify with as a woman was the sexual objectification. Right from puberty a woman is aware that her body is suddenly desirable to men, she is powerless over the affect her body has and can do nothing but get used to the casual everyday appraisal or dismissal.

I am not talking about desire; a person has a right to desire and to show desire as long as it is among consenting adults and clearly welcomed by the other person. What is harmful though is the kind of male gaze that all women have been subjected to in their lives that is de-humanising and degrading. When I was 16/17 at sixth form collage I had my desk next to a window on the ground floor next to a path which students frequently walked along. Behind me  sat two very immature teenage boys, that reminded me of Beavis and Butthead (on MTV at the time). These boys would judge every girl who walked down the path on how attractive she was and how big her boobs and bum was etc. Even though I was not the one being judged, I felt so humiliated by this because it was my gender that was being judged like cattle. I think I was also hurt by the realisation that had I been judged by the same criteria, it wouldn’t have been favorable considering I was a skinny, flat chested, spotty girl with a big nose. At that age I would enjoy putting on a short skirt and walking down the street and counting how many men honked their horns at me from their cars just at the sight of my long slim legs (that only a teenage girl can have without exercising like a lunatic) and long swishing hair, I enjoyed the power my body had over men yet my sense of self-worth was like a house of cards, one word about my appearance and it would fall apart.

Now as a 40 year old women, if I have to pass a group of men and can feel their eyes on me, I cringe, I shrink into myself and hurry along, eyes to the ground. I don’t want to be assessed positively or negatively, I don’t need it, and I don’t want girls growing up feeling like they have to judge themselves and be judged by their bodies either.

I read 100 years of solitude by  Gabriel Garcia Marquez recently. There is a similar scenario of that of Artemis and Actaeon. The Character Remedios the Beauty was so innocent and pure that she is completely unaware of the effect that her incomparable beauty had on men. One unfortunate man was so desperate to get a glimpse of her naked body he climbed onto the roof while she was bathing in order to peer in through a crack and fell off and died. Remedios didn’t seek or discourage the attention from men and lived her life according to her own simple whims, completely unaffected by peoples opinions of her and true to herself.

This is how I wanted to portray Artemis, she doesn’t want or need the male gaze, she is a powerful woman comfortable with her body and her abilities.

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