Jacques-Louis David, the leading Neoclassical painter in Europe during the French Revolution and under Napoleon, took exile in Brussels after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. There he painted and exhibited The Anger of Achilles, which he prized highly as the culmination of his career-long efforts to recapture the perfection of ancient Greek art.
The complex episode, which challenged David to render a spectrum of interacting emotions from stoic courage and calm, heroic resolve to grief and anger, is drawn from Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis and Racine’s seventeenth-century dramatic version of the same story. Agamemnon, king of the Greeks, has just revealed to the youthful Achilles that his daughter Iphigenia is not to be married to him but sacrificed in order to appease the goddess Diana and so allow the Greek fleet to set sail for Troy. As Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, looks on tearfully, Achilles angrily reaches for his sword. In David’s treatment of the subject, Agamemnon’s magnetic gaze and authoritative gesture appear to freeze Achilles’ outburst. Apparently dressed as a bride, the angelic-looking Iphigenia clutches her heart, oblivious to the display of male confrontation. Her mother’s reaction, composed of disappointment at Achilles’ inability to act as well as grief for her daughter, is apparently intended to mirror the mixed reactions that any spectator must feel as filial, spousal, and civic duties compete with one another.