In Greek myth Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces which besieged Troy during the Trojan Wars. Before setting sail for home, Agamemnon sacrificed their youngest daughter Iphigenia to ensure a favourable wind for his fleet. When he returned home, he returned with his lover, the prophetess Cassandra, the captured daughter of King Priam of Troy. Enraged and grieving, Clytemnestra and her son murdered them both in revenge.
The dramatic image reflects Collier’s interest in the theatre. He shows us Clytemnestra moments after the murder, depicting a vivid moment of psychological intensity, captured in the facial expression and wild eyes. Collier brings the same attention to detail to her blood-spattered garments as to the archaeological details of the doorway and column.
The somewhat androgynous figure of Clytemnestra asserts physicality and dominance - qualities not usually ascribed to women in the Victorian era. It is possible that Collier took his inspiration from an 1880 performance of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon at Balliol College, Oxford, in which Clytemnestra was played by a male student. Collier was very involved in the theatrical world of London, and was greatly influenced by fellow-artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who eventually went on to create stage sets. Alma Tadema also encouraged Collier’s focus on archaeological accuracy. In this image, Collier included a column from the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae. He incorrectly placed the capital of the column at its base. In all likelihood, he observed it at the British Museum, where it was inadvertantly displayed upside down.