Aurora, goddess of dawn, is in love with the mortal Cephalus and tries to seduce him. Cephalus, dressed here in blue, turns away from Aurora, rejecting her advances. He gazes towards a portrait of his wife, Procris, held by a winged cupid. Later, when Cephalus and Procris are reunited, they each doubt the fidelity of the other. Their story ends tragically when Cephalus accidentally kills his wife with a magic spear.
To the left of Aurora and Cephalus is a reclining river god, probably Oceanus, and beside him is the winged horse Pegasus. The background figure wearing a wreath of corn and holding flowers could be Terra, a goddess associated with the awakening earth. The faint outline of the sun god Apollo in his chariot can be seen in the vivid orange sky. These figures relate to relate to Aurora as the goddess of dawn and times of the day.
Aurora, goddess of dawn, is in love with the mortal Cephalus and tries to seduce him. Cephalus, dressed here in blue, turns away from Aurora, rejecting her advances. He gazes towards a portrait of his wife, Procris, held by a winged putto – this scene is not included in the most famous version of this story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VII: 690–862). Later, when they are reunited, Cephalus and Procris each doubt the fidelity of the other. Their story ends tragically with Cephalus accidentally killing his wife with a magic spear.
On the left, the reclining figure leaning on an urn is probably Oceanus, the father of all river gods. Beside him is the winged horse Pegasus. In the background, the woman wearing a wreath of corn and holding flowers could be Terra, a goddess associated with the awakening earth. The faint outline of the sun god Apollo in his chariot can be seen in the vivid orange sky to the left. These figures relate to Aurora as the goddess of dawn and times of the day. Some of the figures may represent the Four Elements – Apollo as Fire, the reclining goddess as Earth, Pegasus as Air and Oceanus as Water.
This melancholic scene is conveyed through the clever use of pose and expression to convey emotion: this is a moment of great regret for Cephalus and sorrow for Aurora. Poussin made several changes to the composition while painting and was clearly changing his mind about which details to include where. Originally there were two additional trees to the left and a chariot where we now see a reclining goddess, and the position of the head of the putto holding Procris’s portrait has been altered.
Unfortunately, this painting is in poor condition. During the Second World War the painting was stored at Manod Quarry and the canvas suffered multiple tears and paint losses caused by falling slate, which have now been repaired. The largest tear was through the body of the reclining river god. Due to age, the top layer of the paint has become transparent revealing the reddish ground layer of paint beneath, and the colours are no longer vibrant.
The pose of Cephalus is similar to that of Bacchus in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and the figure of Oceanus may be derived from Tithonus in Agostino Carracci’s fresco of Cephalus and Aurora in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, which Poussin would have known.
The subject was popular with other artists in the seventeenth century. We own Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Cephalus and Procris reunited by Diana and Landscape with the Death of Procris attributed to his studio, as well as Peter Paul Rubens’s Aurora abducting Cephalus.
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