Helen of Troy

helen-of-troy.jpgHelen, whose beautiful face was said to have launched a thousand ships. She was the wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Of course, the fact that she was married didn’t bother Paris at all; he was a married man as well. But Paris had fallen in love with Helen and, married or not, he wanted her. (Sounds a bit like the Rossetti/Morris situation, no?)

Paris was welcomed to Sparta by the unsuspecting Menelaus, who held feasts in Paris’ honor and invited him to stay as long as he wished.

Menelaus went on a hunting expedition on a nearby island and Paris saw his chance. The goddess Aphrodite had previously promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world after he had given to Aphrodite a golden apple that other goddesses had coveted. To fulfill her promise, Aphrodite made Helen fall in love with Paris, so he had no trouble persuading her to leave her husband and return with Paris to his homeland of Troy. Paris also took with him much of Menelaus’ treasure. Paris was a greedy little beggar, wasn’t he?

This abduction of Helen caused the Trojan war, which lasted a decade. And why was Helen the face that launched a thousand ships? Before her marriage to Menelaus, all the Greek kings wanted to marry her. Helen’s father (with great foresight) had each king make a promise that they would be loyal friends to whomever Helen chose to marry and that if anything should ever happen to her, they all pledged that they would assist her husband in saving her. Bound by their promise, all the Greek kings offered their armies and ships to help Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon to rescue Helen and have victory over the Trojans.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted Helen of Troy in 1863, a year after the death of his wife from an overdose of laudanum. The model he used was Annie Miller (previously mentioned on this site in the post about The Awakening Conscience). In my own personal opinion, I was always a bit surprised at his choice of model. While Miller is indeed pretty, I don’t see her as the beautiful Helen of Troy. But Miller came from a lowly background, so perhaps subconsciously Rossetti was elevating her status.

Below, Helen of Troy painted by Frederick Sandys.

sandys-helen-of-troy.jpgFour years after Rossetti painted his Helen, Frederick Sandys painted this depiction of Helen of Troy. Tensions rose between Rossetti and Sandys – Rossetti believed that Sandys’ version was too similar to his own. Elizabeth Prettejon discussed this in her book Rossetti and His Circlesaying, “The rippling hair and full lips functioned as talismans in much the same way as the hair ornaments or pieces of china. They were symbols, in a general sense, of the group’s shared artistic project; more specifically they were symbols of the group’s compelling shared image of woman. The Rossettian image of woman has been criticised for its repetitiveness; but repetition was precisely its hallmark.”

I prefer Rossetti’s Helen to Sandys’. Sandys shows Helen more like a petulant, fussy child who hasn’t had her way and is in great need of a time out. What do you think?

For more on Helen of Troy, here’s a wonderful overview.

Here’s a page showing different how different artists have portrayed Helen on canvas.

Rossetti’s Helen of Troy at The Victorian Web, where you can also read Rossetti’s poem Troy Town.

And this wonderful article: Rossetti’s dreaming women: Three pictures of visioning and imagining

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17 thoughts on “Helen of Troy

  1. You have to take into consideration that beauty is based on perception. What 19th century Victorians would have considered beautiful differs greatly from the modern view of beauty. And in the grand scheme of things, our modern perception of beauty is so manufactured an unreal that it is not beauty to me at all.

  2. You also need to bear in mind that Rossetti was a Pre-Raphaelite, you are renowned for challenging popular ideals and perceptions of beauty, causing debates among critics!

  3. I dont know if any of you have seen the ads in magazines about this lovely lady, they are actually Summer’s Eve product ads… I almost died when i saw one this morning… “It was more than her face that launched a thousand ships. A war was fought. A whole city fell. And thousands died. Because of a beautiful face? We think not. Although you’ll be hard pressed to find any mention of her V (vagina!! ROFL!) in any history book, you can bet Helen of Troy knew what was up. And you can be she knew how to take canr of hers too. Just imagine if she’d has Summer’s Eve Cleaning Wash and Cleansing Cloths. pH-balanced, they help het you fresh and keep you fresh all day long. No telling how many ships would have been launched then.”

    HAHAHAHA you know its true… pussy rules the [straight] world, i highly doubt it was her face they were interested in as well!

  4. In as much as i have been dramatised into believing that helen troy was so beautiful…. In ” “s i stil believe that we have more beautiful woman in the world today, angelina jolie, of holywood n our own pretty face n lucious body stepheny okereke of nolywood.

  5. I think the Rossetti depiction is just right. I think she is beautiful but in a hard cold sort of way In the background Troy is burning, people are dying and its as though all she can think about is if every hair is in place There’s a great poem about Helen by the modernist poet HD after the war and how the mothers og greece hate her for what she did to their sons A bit harsh since she was bewitched

    • I agree with you. I think the Rossetti depiction is wonderful. And I enjoy HD’s poem as well. She also wrote a novel about Lizzie Siddal, but I haven’t been able to find a copy yet. It was out of print for a long time. It’s available again, but very expensive.

  6. As she was an ancient Spartan(Greece) and as some ancient pottery/fresco fragments portray, she was probally olive-skined and dark-haired. But anything is possible, and she may have been a rare, fair haired(red/blond) exception in Greece- which would have made her even more strikingly beautiful- especially if she was physically attractive already(something definitely caught prince Paris of Troy’s eyes). Think of albinos(near pigment-less) individuals today. You wouldn’t help but notice her!

    • I agree, the red hair and fair skin is a stretch. It probably has more to do with a Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic than historical accuracy. But you’re right, she could have been a rarity, thus making her quite striking!

  7. What a lovely story! If all men were as faithful as the ones then! Oh, only few can keep their promises now. She is lovely!

  8. Sandys Helena is absolutely adorable and gorgeous! What a stunner 😉 Rossettis on the other hand looks like (God bless her) a post mortem Joni Mitchell (whats up with the dead gaze and the weird color stains on her face….). I love the round, milkiness of Helenas (Sandys) skin, her cute little mouth and beautiful eyes. Stunning!

  9. Pingback: Return to Troy Town | rosamondpress

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