Returning home, the bearded Theseus reaches out to greet his wife Phaedra, who shies away from his embrace. Surprised at this cold reception, Theseus looks inquiringly at his son Hippolytus. During his absence, Phaedra had fallen in love with her stepson, and she is now unable to meet Theseus's eyes. The dialogue underneath the picture recounts the verbal exchange. Phaedra says, "I am unworthy of pleasing you or being near you. I can henceforth only hide myself from you." Theseus then turns to Hippolytus, asking, "What is this strange welcome you give your father?" Hippolytus replies, "Only Phaedra can explain the mystery."
Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson made this highly finished study as an illustration for a series of deluxe editions of the plays of Racine, a French dramatist from the 1600s. The publisher chose seven artists to illustrate the set, which was dedicated to Napoleon, and retained the original drawings, including this one, after the engravings were made.
Girodet displayed such typically Neoclassical characteristics as firm, linear drawing; carefully shaded three-dimensional forms; and a static, ordered composition. Appropriately, his monumental figures--especially the central figure of Theseus silhouetted in front of an open doorway--seem more like Greek statues than living actors.