Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Fine and Decorative Art and Design

First Advisor

Elizabeth Pergam

Second Advisor

Aliza Shvarts


Helen of Troy is one of the most complex and enigmatic characters from Greek mythology. For nearly two thousand years, her story has consistently been retold, reshaped, and reinterpreted in a rich variety of narratives produced in different contexts for different audiences. In the absence of a canonical version Helen’s tale, philosophers, poets, playwrights, novelists, musicians, filmmakers, and artists in every period have interpreted, modified, and embellished her character in disparate and contradictory terms. Consequently, she has played a significant role in Western artistic canon in a way no other figure from Greek mythology has been able to accomplish; she is potentially the best known and most frequently painted woman in the West, aside from the Virgin Mary and Eve.

As the paradigm of absolute beauty, Helen consistently eludes and obstructs all who attempt to depict her. In this way, she constitutes the painter’s greatest challenge: that is, how to represent someone who, by her very nature, is unrepresentable. In spite of —or, perhaps, on account of—her virtual incompatibility with visual representation, artists across all generations have attempted to capture Helen’s beauty by removing her from the indescribable realm of the absolute and force her into a relative position within the ‘real’ world. Within these pictorial confines, Helen becomes an object of the male gaze, vulnerable to sexualization and fetishization as well as to slander and blame. Thus, in the world of art, as in literature, Helen emerges as both the epitome of feminine beauty and as a potent symbol of the destruction that irresistible beauty can wield.

Over the last twenty years, there has been increasing scholarly interest in Helen’s cultural impact as an object of desire and a symbol of the timeless male obsession with controlling female sexuality. Though several remarkable scholars have brought new and indispensable insight into the study of Helen’s reception, they have disproportionately emphasized Helen’s representation in literature while largely overlooking Helen’s prominent position and varying reception in art history. This thesis seeks to fill a considerable gap in the literature by expanding upon the complex issue of Helen’s feminine beauty, sexuality, and power from the perspective of her depiction in painting. Its purpose is not to be a definitive survey of the reception of Helen in art, but rather a critical analysis of a limited number of artworks that exceptionally demonstrate the tensions and contradictions surrounding Helen’s legendary beauty and enigmatic persona, as well as the diverse ways in which she has been rediscovered and reassessed by successive generations of artists. Her varied representations in Attic red-figure vase painting, medieval and quattrocento painting and illumination, and the works of the Pre- Raphaelites and Gustave Moreau are the concern of this investigation.