Apollo & Marsyas, by John Melhuish Strudwick, 1849-1937. 1879. Oil on canvas. 106.5 x 170.0 cm. Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales. Acquired: 1916. Gift: Mrs Ivor Griffiths. Accession Number: NMW A 173.

As cruel episodes depicted in art go, this painting is on a par with Sir Laurence Alma Tadema's Roses of Heliogabalus. It captures the moment of judgment in a music contest between the god Apollo and the young satyr Marsyas. Apollo has only won because he insisted that in the second round the two contestants should play their instruments upside down. This was possible for him, but not for Marsyas, whose pipe now dangles uselessly from his hand. Eyes fixed on Marsyas, one of the Muses stops the contest and delivers the judgement.

For those who know their Greek myths, the momentousness of the judgment is clear: Apollo had already asked that whoever won should be able to inflict whatever punishment he sees fit upon the loser. In the event, he will secure Marsyas to a tree and flay him to death. The episode is not totally wretched. In the lines of poetry written on the back of Strudwick's painting, attributed to a "new writer" — presumably the artist himself — Marsyas professes not to be scared of the outcome, only filled with "deep joy" that he has had the wonderful experience of hearing Apollo play his kithara. But the Muses look solemn, clearly anticipating the outcome of the god's anger. One of them, towards the left in the foreground, hides her face in her hands as the verdict is delivered.

The painting in its appropriately classical frame.

The episode was interpreted allegorically. Alberto Ausoni explains that "the contest between Apollo and Marsyas affirms the superiority of reason [the melodious stringed instrument] over the passions [Marsyas's wind instrument]." Nevertheless, powerful feelings were aroused. Indeed, continues Ausoni, "the cruel punishment meted out to the satyr has come to stand for tragic suffering" (73).

Every detail in the painting has meaning. Marsyas stands in front of a tree trunk, just visible: its overhanging branch, also just visible, will provide a means for Apollo to immobilise him while he inflicts his punishment. The god, his hand resting negligently on his instrument, seems already to be looking at it, and planning his strategy. In front of Marsyas is a little stream. In one version, Apollo will regret his cruelty and turn the satyr into a stream which then bears his name.

It is easy to see the influence of Burne-Jones here, especially in the Muses's sad faces, and even in the palette. The outcome of the story is anticipated in every brushstroke, with Marsyas, shown as a slender youth rather than as a satyr, looking particularly vulnerable. It seems that reference to music may increase the poignancy of art rather than doubling an unalloyed pleasure.

Photographs, text and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and the National Museum of Wales and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]


Art Collections Online — Apollo and Marsyas.Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales Web. 26 August 2019

Ausoni, Alberto. Trans. Stephen Sartarelli. Music in Art. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, (English translation) 2009.

Created 26 August 2019