Museum Home Past Exhibitions Enduring Myth: The Tragedy of Hippolytos and Phaidra

August 24–December 4, 2006 at the Getty Villa

Phaidra and Hippolytos / Desnoyers after Guerin
Phaidra and Hippolytos, Baron Auguste Gaspard Louis Desnoyers after Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, about 1802
Private collection

This exhibition illustrates the enduring allure of the ancient Greek myth of Hippolytos and Phaidra and examines how the myth has been adapted and interpreted in different periods in art, stage, and film. Psychological struggle, religious fundamentalism, and miscommunication between genders and generations are central themes of the myth, which has appealed to artists and writers for over 2,000 years.

The exhibition is presented in conjunction with Hippolytos, the first major production of the Getty Villa's theater program and the inaugural production in the Villa's Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, an outdoor classical theater based on ancient prototypes. Stephen Sachs directs this new adaptation of Euripides' drama, translated by Anne Carson.

The image above mixes principal scenes from Jean Racine's 17th-century adaptation of the myth. Hippolytos's outstretched arm indicates his rejection of Phaidra and his refusal to answer the reproaches of his father, Theseus, who clenches his fist in anger. Hippolytos's rigid stance and aloof expression are offset by Phaidra's intense, agitated gaze.

learn_moreLearn more about Euripides' Hippolytos.

learn_moreRead the story of Hippolytos and Phaidra.

Phaidra Writing to Hippolytos / Testard
Phaidra Writing to Hippolytos, Robinet Testard, about 1500
The Huntington Library
learn_more See a close-up of Phaidra's face and raised hand.

Phaidra's Passion

Phaidra was the daughter of the mythical King Minos and Queen Pasiphaë of Crete, as well as the half sister of the Minotaur, a monster part man, part bull. The tragic image of Phaidra, a lovesick woman struggling with her illicit passion for Hippolytos, has inspired artists working in diverse media, from manuscripts to prints and film.

Phaidra pens a love letter to Hippolytos in this illuminated miniature from French translation of The Heroines by Roman author Ovid. The Heroines is a collection of poems in the form of imaginary love letters from mythological women, including Phaidra, to the men they love.

In accordance with French courtly conventions, Phaidra is depicted here as detached and inexpressive, rather than as an emotional woman ruled by secret desires.

Sarah Bernhardt in Phedre / W. & D. Downey
Sarah Bernhardt in Racine's Phèdre, W. & D. Downey, about 1874

This photograph features French actress Sarah Bernhardt, one of the most celebrated actresses of the late 19th century, playing the lead role in Phèdre by French dramatist Jean Racine.

"The Divine Sarah" started her career in comic and burlesque theater, but soon developed a reputation for her dramatic talents and for a remarkably physical acting style that revolutionized the performance of classical tragedy.

She Dies, My Lord / Girodet
"She Dies, My Lord!" after Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy Trioson, 1813
Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

The Story Retold

Different writers have found new ways to tell the story of Phaidra and Hippolytos while retaining the essential spirit of Euripides' play. Roman author Seneca, for example, transformed the conflict between Hippolytos's obsessive control and Phaidra's uncontrollable passions into a political allegory. Director Jules Dassin set his 1962 film version of the myth, Phaedra, in the contemporary world of high finance and modern Greek aristocracy.

One of the most influential adaptations was Jean Racine's Phèdre. Racine presented this play on the French stage in 1677, at a time of civil war and religious repression. For Racine, the story of Hippolytos and Phaidra's disastrous entanglement provided a warning about the dangers of religious fundamentalism.

The success of Racine's Phèdre inspired many artists. In this engraving from a 19th-century illustrated volume of Racine's plays, Theseus buries his head in shame before Phaidra's lifeless body. Hippolytos's death is visible through the window at upper right.

Hippolytos Destroyed by His Horses / Unknown
Hippolytos Destroyed by His Horses, Unknown, 1591
learn_more See a close-up of Hippolytos and the bull rising from the sea.

The Death of Hippolytos

Hippolytos, whose name means "loosed horse" or "undone by horses," was thrown from his chariot and dragged to his death. The dramatic moment of his death has attracted artists and illustrators from antiquity to the 20th century.

This Flemish edition of Lactantius's 16th-century summary of Ovid's Metamorphoses illustrates the moment before Hippolytos's death, providing only a brief account of the myth on the opposite page. Ovid's poem, however, presents a detailed description of the crash in Hippolytos's own words.

learn_moreRead Ovid's account of Hippolytos's chariot crash.

Death of Hippolytos / Vernet
Death of Hippolytos, Carle Vernet, 1800
learn_more See a close-up of Hippolytos and his panicked horses.

In this spectacular Neoclassical drawing of Hippolytos's tragic fall, French painter and lithographer Carle Vernet contrasted the illuminated body of the chaste hero in the foreground with the dark winged dragon (rather than the bull of the ancient myth) in the background.

Stage Set for Fedra / Sanquirico and Castellini
Stage Set for the Opera Fedra, Alessandro Sanquirico (designer), 1832
learn_more See a close-up of the three figures.

The Story Staged

The tragic myth of Hippolytos and Phaidra has been revived and reinterpreted on stage from the 1600s to the present day. Visionary directors and designers have at times fused classical and Far Eastern motifs, exploited newly discovered archaeological finds, and adapted monumental ancient architecture for the stage.

In this engraving of a stage set from Milan's La Scala, Neoclassical architecture and grand spaces emphasize the heroism of the characters—Theseus and Hippolytos in the foreground, Phaidra in the background.

The stage sets of Alessandro Sanquirico, the sole designer and chief scenic artist at La Scala from 1817 to 1832, were so influential that they became the hallmark of 19th-century operatic set design.

Hippolytos and Horse / Carolis
Hippolytos and Horse, Adolfo De Carolis, 1909

This book cover for an adaptation of the tragedy by Gabriele D'Annunzio (Italian, 1863–1938) recalls ancient Athenian vase-painting in its use of red and black.

To pique the reader's interest, the artist De Carolis suggestively depicted Hippolytos struggling with his horse.

The exhibition is located at the Getty Villa, Museum, Floor 2.