In book seven of his monumental History of Rome (Ab Urbe Condita, c. 29 BC), the Roman historian Livy recounted a three-hundred-year-old legend, in which following an earthquake around 362 BC, a vast chasm had opened in the Roman Forum: the centre of commerce, government and public life in ancient Rome. The growing chasm threatened to destroy the city, sending its inhabitants into a panic. A Roman augur (a religious official who interpreted natural signs) said that the chasm could not be filled or closed until the city sacrificed its greatest treasure. Hearing this, a soldier named Marcus Curtius, declaring that this treasure was in fact the valour of the Roman people, mounted his horse and rode into the abyss where he and the horse died. After this act of heroism, the chasm closed over. Livy’s epic tale spoke of stoicism in the face of doom, and lauded an individual’s ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. With its heroic themes and visually dramatic possibilities, the subject has been very popular with artists since the Renaissance and featured in the famous illustrated world history book, the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493.
Through his teaching and his artistic practice, Benjamin Robert Haydon promoted the view that the standard of British art – and therefore the spirit of the nation itself – would be elevated if artists elected to paint morally uplifting subjects based on biblical themes, classical literature and history. The story of Marcus Curtius, with its theme of nobility and sacrifice, perfectly suited Haydon’s notion of appropriate subject matter for ‘high art’. He first conceived the painting in 1836 when he purported that the image came to him in a ‘sublime dream’.1Ward Bissell Pope (ed.), The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 5 vols, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1960, vol. V, pp. 553–5. He set the subject aside until 1842 when he commenced an enormous painting of Marcus Curtius, over three metres in height (now at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter). When he exhibited it at the British institution in 1843, it met with some critical success, but he failed to sell it during his lifetime. Haydon habitually made numerous smaller copies of his large pictures, including Marcus Curtius, c. 1842–1843, which he sold or gave to friends and patrons. This work is one such version, and was bought from Haydon by his long-time patron and supporter Richard Twentyman, who, shortly after purchasing it (together with several other major works by the artist), immigrated to Australia. Twentyman’s collection of paintings by Haydon, including Marcus Curtius, was exhibited at the NGV in 1869 in an exhibition drawn from private collections.2Melbourne Public Library and Museum of Art (Melbourne, Victoria), Catalogue of the Works of Art: Ornamental and Decorative Art exhibited by the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library and Museum in March April and May 1869, Melbourne, 1869. This exhibition included sixteen works by Haydon that were owned by Richard Twentyman.
In Marcus Curtius, Haydon eliminated many of the details of Livy’s narrative, such as the Roman Forum itself and the curious onlookers pondering the chasm, preferring instead to concentrate on the climactic moment of the plunge of horse and rider. The drama of the work stems from the figure of Marcus Curtius, which is actually a self-portrait, whose confident and stoic expression is in complete contrast to the palpable terror in the eyes of the horse. The animated mane and tail, along with the soldier’s swirling red cloak, give a sense of the speed of the fall, an effect that is further emphasised by Haydon’s energetic painting technique. As a counterpoint, the firmly seated figure of Marcus Curtius seems impervious to the rate of descent; he has even discarded the reins, showing his willingness to accept his fate. Because of Haydon’s enthusiastic campaign to raise ‘the taste of the nation’, an endeavour he began while still a student, this rather unsubtle work was lampooned in the British press for many years. The composition was used by a host of caricaturists to ridicule various public figures. It was criticised by some of Haydon’s fellow artists who would have understood the rather pointed autobiographical nature of the painting and may have been amused by Haydon’s self-portrait in which he has significantly wound back the clock. Yet the work also had its admirers and was reproduced and highly praised in the Illustrated London News in 1843.3Illustrated London News, 8 Apr. 1843, p. 250.
Sadly the painting has a tragic subtext. Haydon painted himself as the stoic but nevertheless suicidal soldier only a few years before he himself took his own life; a carefully planned act contemplated while he was experiencing depression.
Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Ward Bissell Pope (ed.), The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon. 5 vols, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1960, vol. V, pp. 553–5.
Melbourne Public Library and Museum of Art (Melbourne, Victoria). Catalogue of the Works of Art: Ornamental and Decorative Art exhibited by the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library and Museum in March April and May 1869, Melbourne, 1869. This exhibition included sixteen works by Haydon that were owned by Richard Twentyman.
Illustrated London News, 8 Apr. 1843, p. 250.