Adam Buck, The Expiation of Orestes, 1813

2018 072 002 V0001 Adam Buck (Irish, 1759–1833), The Expiation of Orestes, 1813, graphite and watercolor heightened with gouache on board, 9 1/8 x 9 ¾ inches. Acquired with funds provided by The John D. Reilly Endowment for Excellence, 2018.072.002

This lively and fresh watercolor signals turn-of-the-century interest in classical models, especially Greek vase painting. The subject of this sheet is taken directly from a Greek vase that appears in a group portrait of the artist and his family (Yale Center for British Art). In Greek literature, Orestes killed his mother and her lover in revenge for his father Agamemnon’s death. Orestes went mad from guilt but was saved by Athena to whom he built an altar. In both the ancient Greek vase pictured in the Buck family’s portrait and in this watercolor, we see Orestes sitting before a sculpture of the goddess, his head bowed and in profile. Buck juxtaposes the cool, gray monochrome of the stone sculpture with the warm flesh of the worshipper.


The artist was born in Dublin and trained as a miniaturist. He moved to London and cultivated a wealthy clientele, including the Prince of Wales. Although he was best known for his portraits, he produced handsome and elegant allegories, too.


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