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John Downman, 1750–1824
The Ghost of Clytemnestra Awakening the Furies
Former Title(s):
The ghost of Clytemnestra awaking the furies. Vide the Furies of Æschylus. [1782, Royal Academy of Arts, London, exhibition catalogue]
Materials & Techniques:
Oil on panel
20 x 25 1/2 inches (50.8 x 64.8 cm)

Signed and dated in black paint, lower left: "J[...] Downman | pinxit 1781"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
ghost | light | literary theme | mask (costume) | religious and mythological subject | serpent | snake | white (color) | women
Associated People:
Furies, Dirae (Erinyes), Eumenides; 'Furie' (Ripa)
Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon and queen of Mycenae (or sometimes Argos) in ancient Greek legend
Not on view
IIIF Manifest:

John Downman was a pupil of Benjamin West and entered the Royal Academy (RA) Schools in 1769. He began exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1770, but was not elected an associate of the RA until 1795 and never achieved full membership. Primarily a portraitist, he occasionally showed subject pictures drawn from history, literature, mythology, and the theater. The subject of this painting is from The Eumenides, the final play in the Oresteia trilogy by the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus. The ghost of Clytemnestra, who had been slain by her son Orestes after she murdered his father Agamemnon, is seen here awakening the Furies, or spirits of punishment, to pursue her son in vengeance. The artist exhibited the painting in 1782 at the RA, where it was seen by Horace Walpole, who called it “distracted & disgusting,” perhaps in part due to the figures’ exaggerated, almost caricatural, features. Accompanying RA 250 label text: J. Downman No. 132, The ghost of Clytemnestra awaking the furies. Vide the Furies of Æschylus Exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, 1782, in the Great Room of Somerset House “Another proof how artists sometimes loose [sic] themselves, and mistake their talents, we have, in two small pictures near No. 119, and No. 132, from Sophocles, and Aeschylus, but these are rocks above water, and warnings rather than examples. Nor is it easy to believe, that the finest sketches in the exhibition, No. 368, and 369, &c. and the vilest history, should come from the same hand, yet both are marked J. Downman.” (Morning Chronicle, May 9, 1782)

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016

Gothic Nightmares - Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (Tate Britain, 2006-02-15 - 2006-05-01) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Malcolm Cormack, Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 88-89, N590.2 A83 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Angus Trumble, The Finger : A Handbook, , Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010, p. 156, GT498.F46 T78 2010 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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