The Helen Of Troy Theory
I’ve been talking a lot about Jenny Lind lately and here’s the impetus for my resurgent interest in solving the mystery of who the carved-arm females are meant to depict:
The owner of the sofa had recently put it up for sale on Ebay and an intriguing story came with the set – that it had been bought at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and had stayed in the family it’s entire life until now. The owner had been told by an antiques dealer many years ago that it was part of a parlor design series called “Helen of Troy and Paris”. Also known as Helen of Sparta, she was the daughter of Zeus and Leda in Greek Mythology.
On the same sofa is the purported Paris (per the antique dealer’s story), Helen’s mythological abductor (or lover depending on what you read).
This abduction is the cause of the Trojan War and hers is the “Face That Launched 1,000 Ships” that disembarked to recover her.
In comparing her to historic depictions of Helen of Troy, none are a home-run dead match for the arms:
- 1868 bust of Helen by Jean Baptiste Clesinger (Getty Images wants $$ for any use on my site but she is worth a look)
- 1788 painting by Jacques-Louis David in the Louvre (both Helen and Paris (in his cap but not helmet))
- 1898 depiction by Evelyn de Morgan
- Vase, 450–440 BC found in Italy (the lines on the headband remind me of those on the sofa)
The Helen of Troy theory makes some sense. Some of the carved-arm furniture is of the Neo-Grec sub-style – as is this sofa.
Also, there was a surge of interest in the lost city of Troy in the 1870s due to the excavations of German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Prior to the 1870s, the city of Troy was considered to be a work of fiction.
The theoretical location of Troy was disputed by academics, but the results of a preliminary dig in 1870 encouraged Schliemann to focus on a manmade mound called Hissarlik (Place OfThe Fortress), and within three years his team of 150 labourers had driven a series of huge trenches through the site, exposing the layers of several cities.
In May 1873, Schliemann spotted gold in one trench. He ordered an early break for lunch and, assisted by his Greek wife Sophie,personally dug up an astonishing hoard of gold, silver and bronze jewellery, together with many priceless ornaments. He smuggled them out of Turkey, an act that sparked fury among Turkish authorities, who understandably felt they had a claim. Priam’s Treasure, as it was called, was exhibited in Berlin’s Bode Museum and made Schliemann a celebrity. He was adept at media manipulation – a drawing of his wife clad in some of the jewelery was reprinted around the world. His Homer theory had been spectacularly vindicated
Also, see this 1870 NY Times article.
Sometime in the early 1870’s, Schliemann’s wife was shown wearing the “Jewels of ….. Helen”
All of this excitement is happening in the years building up to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition when this sofa was produced. Schliemann published Troja und seine Ruinen (Troy and Its Ruins) in 1875.
So What’s the Takeaway?
We have a Neo-Grec sofa with a Greek male figure and a not-so-Greek female. The apparatus adorning her hair might pass as Greek, but her jabot and tassel seem to be late 19th century attire to me. Maybe that is a compromise made by the carver so that the sofa would fit better into the parlors of the time.
Paris is often depicted in imagery with a Phyrgian cap, though on this sofa the male profile has a helmet suitable for battle.
The 1870s Neo-Grec furniture had a lot of Greek imagery so it would make sense that male and female depictions would be those of mythology.
We have a story by an “antique dealer” of unknown origin that has followed this sofa through the eons. We have no way of proving the story, but it would not surprise me to find it to be true (that there was a “Helen of Troy and Paris” series of furniture).
I could find no reference to Jenny Lind playing the part in an Opera of Greek Mythology with a cursory look so I am unaware of the need to depict her in Greek context, espeically since she had faded a bit into home life after the 1850s.
The Schleimann craze in the 1870-1875 surely explains to me the interest in Greek Mythology at the time.
I can’t prove that this is Helen and Paris, but I believe that on this particular sofa (and others of it’s ilk), it is meant to represent a male and female figure from Greek Mythology, not necessarily Helen and Paris and not Jenny Lind.
I’m not done yet – there are more theories on these carvings left to examine in future posts (some noted by you out there). But, here’s one last depiction of Helen before we close this particular post out.