Visual Analysis: Cymon and Iphigenia

Cymon and Iphigenia (1773) is one of the most sensual works by Benjamin West. It is exhibited in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is a visual adaptation of a famous poem by John Dryden about Cymon and Iphigenia, describing one of the most beautiful scenes in the world history. Despite this, many researchers found it very difficult to ascertain the plot. At the beginning, there was an idea that the story is taken from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1575), and then many believed The Decameron (1353) by Boccaccio was the source for this work. Only later it was proved that the painting concerns John Dryden’s poem. It means that this motif is very popular in art, and many artists have already turned to it. However, West wrote this scene is a very sensual and easy way, trying to convey all the nuances of the beauty that Cymon saw in front of him. The paper will discuss how the artist conveys the idea of fateful meeting through soft lines, bright colors, and the dominance of foreground that makes this painting both tactical and sensual, distinguishing it as a more naturalistic work as seen in the museum from reproductions in classrooms.

The plot of this work is built around a famous myth. Cymon was a good and brave son of a nobleman, who was not very smart due to working on the ground most of the time. Once Cymon came to a camp where Iphigenia was sleeping among her slaves. He was fascinated and hypnotized by her beauty. West portrayed Cymon at that point when he is looking straight into her eyes, without looking away from her face. The artist recorded the moment when Iphigenia woke up from sleep, and suddenly saw that Cymon is looking at her. In practice he described the meeting of two worlds, which then will develop in the next stories. It is hard not to notice that Cymon loved her at first sight, so he decided to conquer her in any way, because all the following adventures were devoted to her. In fact, Cymon won all the fights, and overcame all the obstacles only to be with her forever. Cymon is an example of a noble and courageous man who overcame the whole world for his beloved Iphigenia. Accordingly, Iphigenia is an example of a pure beauty for which men are ready to die. In this sense, the basic idea of this work is that two people do not see anyone except each other. This is the culmination of pure feeling and beautiful emotions that the artist perfectly transformed in his work.

Cymon and Iphigenia was done very carefully, because there are many soft lines and transitions. It has almost no straight lines, just curvs and calm strokes. In this way the artist created the carotid atmosphere in which Iphigenia and her servants exist. There are many diagonal and horizontal lines that shape this idea. The whole work is based on the principle of horizontal planes, so West mostly used oval and round shapes. The texture is very pleasant, because West used many plain passages, not giving special attention to any element of the picture. There are also no sharp edges, and the rhythm of elements is soft and peaceful, so it seems like a dream or a fantasy. On one hand, it is a realistic work, because the figures are portrayed convincingly, and the presence of nature also indicates this tendency. On the other hand, this work is very poetic and symbolic, because West did not care about details, trying to transfer a symbolic meaning rather than a realistic one.

The painting is also an efficient and consistent work, as evidenced by temporal and spatial elements. The events occur during the day, and thus the artist painted many lights that are present almost everywhere in the picture. It is difficult to determine the source of light, because there are no concrete contrasts. The artist used very little shadows, leaving more space for light. Nevertheless, in the background the viewer can see the dark clouds, indicating the possibility of rain. This creates a balance between light that fills the whole picture and the coolness that balances it. In general, West used coarse spatial elements, completely covering with bright tones without isolating nuances. For example, Iphigenia’s clothing is similar to a sculpture, because it is perceived in a three-dimensional perspective. In contrast, Cymon was depicted in a two-dimensional perspective, and he seems incomplete. The balance of such prospects gives an impression of a meeting, where two different worlds will unite with each other in the nearest future.

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The foreground is dominant in the work, adding a monumentality and tangibility to this work. It consists of two parts: Cymon on the left, and Iphigenia in the center of composition. She is the semantic epicenter of composition, because the artist used light and bright colors to underline her importance. Such colors as yellow, red, and pink dominate among them. The whole composition is built very well, and the most impressive part is how West portrayed slaves, closing the composition with their sleeping bodies. Another important element is the red cover that creates an effect of theatricality, but it adds intimacy and tenderness as well. Iphigenia is portrayed no less masterfully. In her figure, the artist balanced both heaviness and lightness. She is wrapped in clothes, and it seems that she is a slave of her fate, but her look at Cymon frees her from this artificial prison. It follows her aristocratic nature, belonging to a higher social status. In contrast, Cymon belongs to working class, as evidenced by his tanned skin and simple clothes. Obviously, he comes from the suburbs, because he leans on a stick. There is an obvious contrast between dark and bright, Cymon and Iphigenia. They are also differences in the way they are shaped. Cymon is not portrayed in full growth, while Iphigenia is shown completely. Moreover, her majesty indicates a sharp contrast between her body and slaves.

The work in the museum is different from how it is perceived in the classroom, creating a completely different aesthetic experience and practice. The reproduction gives the impression of a small card, but in fact the picture is quite big with massive figures. This work is probably not the greatest picture in the museum, but it is quite impressive. The discrepancy between the colors is especially amazing. They were not as impressive in the reproduction and did not look as bright as in reality. This work has many accents of light, so it also requires the correct accents in the museum. The way the museum placed lights is admirable. It not only lights the work well but also adds to the correct interpretation of the painting. For instance, the museum clearly shows that three spots of light dominate in the picture, particularly the ones on Iphigenia and her servants, and therefore it is the key motive of the composition.

One more advantage of the museum is that one can see different, often unseen parts in Cymon and Iphigenia. There are not many details, because the artist tried to impress by the use of intensive colors and symbolism. However, there are still some important details, which are more difficult to notice. The way the artist painted Iphigenia’s fingers is very realistic and striking. The landscape is also very impressive in the background, where one can see the little swans on the lake. In fact, seeing the picture in class only it is easy to presume that the artist did not portray the landscape well, though it is quite the opposite. The reproduction cannot convey the beauty of this work. The museum also showed how skillfully West worked with shadows, because it seems that there are almost no shadows. Thus, the impression of the painting in the museum differs significantly from the reproduction.

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In conclusion, the work is an example of the mythological works by Benjamin West, but this one, perhaps, is the most romantic and poetic. It tells the story about Cymon, who accidently saw Iphigenia with her slaves during rest. The artist wanted to show that one scene could change the whole life. He also showed a meeting of two different worlds: the brave and the beautiful. Cymon is depicted as a simple but still smart and handsome man from a poor family, who worked in the fields all his life. Afterwards, he is ready to do any work for this woman. The second world is Iphigenia, which is the embodiment of ideal beauty. The artist used many light and bright colors in order to underline the importance of the meeting, thereby creating a festive atmosphere. In addition, there are many important details that indicate the presence of love as the most creative force in the world. In this case, the artist also used smooth and wavy lines, a combination of different perspectives, and interlocking of light and shadows. Not by chance, Cymon and Iphigenia are represented as opposite figures, because only love can unite the most distant worlds.

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