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Veronese, The Family of Darius Before Alexander

Paolo Veronese, The Family of Darius before Alexander, 1565-67, oil on canvas, 236.2 x 474.9 cm (The National Gallery, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Male: It's opulent. It's large. It's full of saturated color. And it's kind of confusing. Female: It's quite confusing. We're looking at a painting by the great Venecian painter, Veronese, called The Family of Darius before Alexander. Male: Darius was the ruler of the Persians. The Persians had been at war with Greece. Alexander the Great, that famous Greek general, had finally conquered Darius. Here is his family asking for mercy. Female: When Alexander conquered the Persians, Darius, the leader of the Persians' escape, but his family was taken hostage. In this painting by Veronese, we see Darius' mother pleading for mercy for his family. With her are Darius' wife, behind her in gold, and Darius' children. Male: Now this was serious business because when one army conquered another generally the conquered would be killed, could be raped, could be enslaved. Female: It's a very serious moment, indeed. Darius' mother is making a very serious mistake, because instead of pleading for mercy with Alexander, she actually addresses Hephaestion, Alexander's adviser. Male: But the courtly figure of Alexander steps forward and really smooths over the mistake. Female: That's right Alexander says to her, "It's okay. This is also Alexander." Male: Now how does that make sense? Female: Well, he's saying it's okay. This is my close friend. This is my close adviser since my childhood. A very generous gesture, both toward his friend, Hephaestion, and also toward Darius' mother, saying it's okay this mistake. It's understandable. Male: So Alexander is being portrayed here not only as a brilliant military ruler, but also as a diplomat, also as somebody who is very much a courtly figure in the highest sense. Those would have been values that would have been very important to the Venetians at this time, to the Pisani family who had commissioned this painting from Veronese. It's intersting that the initial confusion that we feel when we look at this painting, who are all these figures, is exactly a part of the narrative itself. It is the confusion that is being represented. Female: That's right. Male: This is a grand painting on a grand scale. It is filled to capacity with other figures who are really unnecessary but give the painting a kind of complication and that function kind of anecdotally. For example, on the right side, you don't need to have a dog in the painting. The dog looks like it is aggressive and it might attack those figures who are kneeling, but it's being restrained by the guard. This, of course, stands as a kind of illusion to the restraint that Alexander himself is showing. Let's walk up to this painting and look at it closely, because it's really beautiful. Veronese has imbued the figures in the foreground with a kind of richness, a kind of density, that shows of brilliant coloration and brushwork. Female: We see the primary colors of red and yellow and blue and then secondary colors of greens and oranges. Color is so much a part of Veronese's work and of the Venetians in general. Male: It's interesting, because when you look at the painting closely, certainly you see color, certainly you see a kind of bravura brushwork. You can see that especially in the children of Darius; in, for instance, the white that highlights the blue and white clothing that they wear. But line is also clearly important. Female: We see contours and drawing especially in the architecture in the background. Male: It's almost as if those are sketches. You've got this beautiful architectural frieze in the background that contains even more figures up towards the top of the canvas, but if you look at the extreme left side, towards the background you can see these beautifully foreshortened horses, and they are almost mere sketches. Female: If you look closely, everything in the painting is in motion. We feel this drama happening at this moment. We feel everybody reacting. We have this sweeping diagonal from the lower left to the upper right that is the basis for the composition, so there's a real sense of confusion and activity and movement, and a kind of theatricality here, and we feel like we're observers, just like the people we see on the balustrade in the background. (jazzy music)