Power is all about the game. In love, this game becomes a hunt, with most traditional stories depicting a male hunter chasing after the woman, his “prize.” But mythological goddesses are some of the most powerful women around, and they often don’t wait to be chased. Take the goddess Diana, for instance. Known for her beauty and skill as a huntress, the goddess of the moon was a uniquely powerful female figure among the repertoire of characters from history, mythology, and religion that constituted the Western artistic canon. For this reason she was adopted as a namesake by several powerful noblewomen, most notably Diane de Poitiers, who wielded formidable influence in the French court.
One of the most famous anecdotes of the life of Diana is her encounter with Actaeon, who saw her bathing naked with her nymphs while he was riding with his hunting party. When Diana discovered him, she became enraged and transformed him into a stag, and he was chased down and devoured by his own hounds.
This story has been represented in many ways over the centuries for decoration, education, and (mostly) delectation. As times have changed, so have artistic perspectives. How can an artist capture the power of a huntress?
Francois Clouet took a measured approach in his painting The Bath of Diana (1558-59), choosing to display this story in a narrative style with a symmetric composition. Diana occupies the center of the painting, her pale, nude body and graceful gestures drawing the viewer’s attention from the nymphs and satyrs that surround her. She is distinguished by the small crescent moon that crowns her forehead, a trademark symbol which alludes to her mythological powers. To the left of Diana’s party enters Actaeon, dressed as a French nobleman riding his proud black horse and gazing at the divine beauty of the goddess. But she does not return his gaze, remaining aloof and unattainable. Actaeon never stood a chance, and as he continues to ride across the landscape he meets his unfortunate end on the right side of the painting, where a stag succumbs to the wrath of various hounds.
Clouet’s story is self-contained, presented for the viewer’s passive enjoyment of a well-known mythological anecdote. In contrast, Francois Boucher’s Diana Leaving Her Bath (1742) presents Diana in a much more intimate setting, minimizing the details of the narrative to focus on a single moment in time. Accompanied by a single nymph, a nude Diana sits confidently, absorbed in her activities as she rests from the hunt. The quiver full of arrows lies next to her dogs, while the prizes she hunted rest by her side, showing off her skillful prowess. Instead of emphasizing her mythological status to distance her from the viewer, as Clouet does, Boucher brings Diana into focus much closer to the viewer, creating a sensual rapport by using soft textures and light colors. She does not acknowledge the viewer, who in turn is able to witness her most private moments and derive pleasure from her beauty, remaining safe as long as Diana remains oblivious to his presence. The viewer thus becomes Actaeon the voyeur, an active participant in the narrative who directly experiences the danger of falling for a beautiful woman.
This representational tactic actually offers Diana a more tangible sense of power than Clouet’s restrained approach. Diana is beautiful to behold, and the viewer is in danger of losing him-/herself by gazing at the painting just as Actaeon lost himself by gazing at the real Diana. The huntress comes to life in our minds as we feel the heat of the chase. As viewers, we can become hunters through the power of the gaze, the power of controlling an image or a story within our minds, but our power is also subverted with the teasing threat of being hunted by Diana herself. Some would argue that the greatest pleasure comes with the greatest danger. So which does your gaze prefer: to hunt, or be hunted?