Esther’s Banquet. Edward Armitage. Exhibited 1864 Royal Academy. Click on image to enlarge it.

The picture we engrave on page 424 was exhibited last season at the Royal Academy, to whose exhibition it formed one of the most memorable contributions. It is now in the Liverpool exhibition.

Very little need be said by way of recalling the incidents of the Old Testament story, of which the crisis of interest is here illustrated. Many years before the time of Esther, when Nineveh had been destroyed and the Assyrian empire had been absorbed into that of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar had carried the Jews captive into Bubylon, In turn Babylon was conquered by the great Cyrus, the founder of the vast Persian empire, extending “from India even unto Ethiopia.” One of the successors of Cyrus was the Ahasuerus of the Scripture narrative — probably (although four monarchs bore the name of Ahasuerus) Artaxerxes Longimanus, the son of Xerxes, so named because his right hand was longer than his left, and whose long reign commenced b.c. 464. Many of the Jews still remained scattered over the empire, in a captive or despised state. Among them were Mordecai, a captive in “Chusan the palace,” and his cousin and adopted daughter, Esther, one of the maidens selected for their beauty to be submitted to the King that he might choose a successor to the disobedient and disgraced Queen, Vashti. Finding favour above all the rest, Esther was accordingly made Queen. Meanwhile, Mordecai had discovered a plot to murder the King, but had received no recognition of his great service, and had moreover the misfortune deeply to offend Haman, the King’s favourite, by omitting to pay him obeisance, in consequence of which Haman not only resolved to hang Mordecai, but contrived to obtain the King's warrant to destroy, on a given day, all the Jews throughout the empire. Whereupon, hearing of the great danger which threatened her people, and not forgetting in her elevation their claim upon her, Esther resolved to intercede for them, and presented herself unbidden as a suppliant before the King, thereby endangering her life, because breaking a law which ordained that all should be put to death who, without being called, should venture to approach the King in the “inner court,” except the one to whom the King should hold out the golden sceptre that he might live. The risk was probably greater to Esther, seeing that in so doing she might be thought to have violated the strict seclusion which from time immemorial has been exacted of women in the East. But to the beloved and beautiful Queen the sceptre was held out; upon which Esther proposed to make known her request at a “banquet of wine,” to which she invited the King, praying that Haman might also accompany him. The King agreeing, to the banquet they came. Ahasuerus having in the mean time become very favourably disposed towards the Jews, by being reminded of what he owed to Mordecai, the tables are turned on their foe. At the banquet Esther supplicates for her own life and that of her people; she discovers to the King the design of the wicked Haman, and, in the well-known sequel, Haman is hanged on the lofty gallows prepared by him for Mordecai; and the captive Hebrews throughout the empire are allowed, on the day appointed for them to be massacred, to revenge themselves upon their enemies — a deliverance which the Jews celebrate to this day in their feast of Purim (from Pur, a lot, in allusion to the casting of lots, which seems to have decided Haman in his sanguinary purpose. Upon the Queen proclaiming the murderous treachery of Haman, occurs the following passage (Esther vii. 7, 8), which we give, it having been quoted by Mr. Armitage, in the Academy catalogue, in connection with his picture: —

And the King arising from the banquet of wine in his wrath went Into tho palace garden: and Haman stood up to make request for his life to Esther the Queen; for he saw that there was evil determined against him by the King.

Then the King returned out of the palace garden into the place of the banquet of wine; and Hainan was fallen on the bod whereon Esther wa.*. Then said the King, Will he force the Queen also before me in the house? As the word went out of the King’s mouth they covered Homan's face.

Of the manner in which the painter has realised this highly dramatic situation our Engraving will give an idea. The King stalks in with three of the “chamberlains” elsewhere alluded to, or, as the name might be translated, “eunuchs,” whom he has bidden to enter, while, with a gesture of his clenched fist, he seems to say, in addition to the words of bitter mockery at Hainan’s supplicatory posture, “Away with him!" With terrible alacrity the guards rush to obey the mandate of the angry King. Esther’s gesture and expression are in the highest degree descriptive and appropriate. One outspread hand betrays alarm, or at least surprise, at the almost violent agony of the terrified supplicator, and with the other she holds the robe which, in the forgetfulness of abject terror, he pulls down as he clasps her knee; but her face only reveals a sense of just revenge and scornful pride; for those were stern and ruthless times, and human life was held of small account. One of Esther’s ladies, perhaps, and likewise one of the satraps at the Court who have been invited to the banquet, look on still more vindictively. All the accessories of the picture have evidently been most carefully studied from the Scripture narratives, and inferentially from Assyrian remains, to which the general character of the Persian ornamentation would assuredly bear a close resemblance; as, for instance, the “gold bed,” here covered with a tiger-skin, meaning, doubtless, thereby the couches round the tables, like the triclinium on which the Greeks and Romans sat at their meals and symposia; the “pavement of red and blue, and white and black marble,” interesting as, we believe, the first mention of that tessellation of floors, afterwards carried to such elaboration in the pavement mosaics of the Roman houses, temples, and baths; the carpets, for the manufacture of which Persia is celebrated even now; the “green hangings with coids of fine linen;” the Assyrian-like bas-relief of a hunting subject against the wall; and the glimpse through the marble porch of the sultry light on the gardens which were so extensive and famous a portion of the palatial inclosures of the great Eastern monarch. We have only to add that the more technical qualities of this picture are equally remarkable with its intellectual and dramatic qualities. Not only is the conception highly dignified as well as true to nature, but the composition and drawing of the figures are quite masterly, and the colouring is warmer and generally more agreeable than in any preceding work by the artist we have seen. It is, in short, distinguished by a degree of knowledge and thoroughness (derived, doubtless, from Mr. Armitage’s early study under Delaroche and his subsequent practice of mural-painting) which lifts the work far above the often flimsy and vulgar allurements of the mass of ordinary English easel pictures. That the winner on two occasions of one of the first prizes in the Westminster Hall competitions, and the painter of such a picture as this, has not been elected a member of the Royal Academy, is a much greater discredit to that institution than to the painter, and may induce some to suspect that his having come forward prominently in favour of reform in that body may have had something to do with his exclusion. We regret, too, that Mr. Armitage is not included among the painters of figures for the alcoves in the South Kensington Museum. His frescoes of the twelve Apostles (the central fresco of Our Lord is less successful) in the Catholic Church of St. John, Islington, are certainly among the most admirable mural paintings of single figure hitherto executed in this country.

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Bibliography

“Exhibition at the Royal Academy.” The Illustrated London News. (26 October 1866): ???. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 6 January 2016.


Created 6 January 2016