Electra Receiving the Ashes of her Brother, Orestes


The Worcester Art Museum is home to paintings created by many of the world’s great masters. One such master, Jean-Baptiste Joseph Wicar, is represented in the museum by his masterpiece, Electra Receiving the Ashes of her Brother, Orestes. Wicar, who was born in Lille, France in 1762, was a leading painter of French Neoclassicism until his death in 1827.

Neoclassicism is a style that focused on a return to the classical style of antiquity. Neoclassicism focused on classical themes, and often represents stories from Greek mythology or legends. Wicar studied in Paris with Jacques Louis David, and in 1784 traveled with David to Italy, a country to which he became attached for the rest of his life. By 1800, he settled in Rome, where he painted this picture for the French ambassador to the city.

The work, which was purchased by the museum in 1991 with funds from the Stoddard Acquisition fund, is 39 11/16 inches by 53 ¾ inches. The medium was oil on a wood panel, and it was painted between 1826 and 1827.

Electra Receiving the Ashes of her Brother, Orestes, shows a scene from Sophocles play "Electra". Electra's brother, Orestes, returns from exile in disguise to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon. The tomb of Agamemnon is seen on the left. Orestes pretends he is a messenger bringing Electra the remains of himself, having claimed that he had died. His friend, Pylades, is behind him and signals Electra not to reveal their true identities. The scene shows the moments before she realized that he is her brother and that the ashes were a ploy to gain entrance to the family palace. In the background are his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus.

Electra Receiving the Ashes of her Brother, Orestes, is found in the 18th - 19th century French, also known as the Morgan Gallery. The room was built in honor of Anne (Nancy) Morgan. The floor is hardwood. The room is filled with ambient light from the ceiling and there are no sharp shadows. There are large vents in the walls. The room was octagonal, and the paintings were evenly spaced at eye level on the walls. The painting was located in the center of one of the larger walls, and beneath the painting was a marble, gold, and wood table. The center of the room was empty, except for a pedestal with a sculpted head on it.

The frame was gold painted wood, and about nine inches wide. It began with an outward curved decorated area about one inch wide, followed by a one-inch plane, parallel to the picture plane. Then there was a row of small beads, followed by a smooth inward curved area, and the final decorated area that was nearly perpendicular to the picture plane. The outermost part of the frame was a flat smooth area, parallel to the picture plane. The frame was bright and added to the painting by bringing the viewer’s eye into the center of the picture. It acted to highlight the three central characters.

Wicar carefully combined the elements and principals of design. The background is dark, and contrast to the red, white, blues, green, and orange of the main characters. The color creates depth and places the emphasis on the main characters. Diagonal lines create movement in the work and places emphasis on the faces. Her arm leads to his face; his sword leads to her face, and his friend’s sword points towards the mother, warning us about her presence. The diagonal lines in the floor create rhythm, while the horizontal lines formed by the columns show stability. Wicar used many different shapes in this work. The bodies are organic. The tomb has triangles in it. The floor is composed of squares, while circles are in the sculptures and columns. The paint has simulated textures. The clothes and bodies appear to have natural textures, while the floor, tomb, and sculptures appear to be rough. The lines in the floor and stairs create linear perspective. Atmospheric perspective is created by the cool colors in the background and the slight blurring of the figures. He also used chiaroscuro to create depth in the characters.

The principals of design are carefully followed; an attribute of Wicar’s neoclassical style. The balance is symmetrical, with the three main characters in the center, and the tomb on the left contrasting the background characters on the right. Emphasis is on the brother and sister, and is created using color and lines. Diagonal lines and physical contact between characters act to unify the work. The muscles in the arms and legs show the characters are about to move. The pattern in the floor and the color of the floor create rhythm.


Electra Receiving the Ashes of her Brother, Orestes, is my favorite painting in the Worcester Art Museum. The Greek legend stirs my imaginations, and the passion depicted within the characters astonishes me. I’ve always had a predilection towards the Greek myths. The combination of the elements and principals of design were impressive. I especially liked the way Wicar used perspective and how he emphasized the main characters. Electra Receiving the Ashes of her Brother, Orestes, is my favorite painting in the Worcester Art Museum, and has been a wonderful work to study.


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