From 1772 Abildgaard spent five years in Rome thanks to a scholarship granted by the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. It was while in Rome that he created this depiction of the legendary hero Philoctetes, whose screams of pain caused by a festering snakebite made his comrades-in-arms abandon him on a Greek island during the Trojan war.
The dominant and deeply rooted movement within figure painting at this time was neoclassicism with its emphasis on self-command and calm. Abildgaard challenges this pattern with his depiction of a body convulsively curved around an axis of pain; a body that feels like it is forcefully restrained within the picture field with its tense musculature and twisted limbs.
Avantgarde, pathos and Weltschmerz
The 1770s brought with them an increased emphasis on grand passions among the Northern European ”avant-garde”, and this new outlook also left its mark on Abildgaard’s circles in Rome. The interest in pathos and Weltschmerz is clearly evident in his works from this era.
In this case he used a principal work of classical sculpture as the basis for his rendition of Philoctetes’ tormented state: The Torso Belvedere in the Vatican museum served as the model for the plastic and mannered rendition of the hero’s upper body. With this move, Abildgaard’s stylistic innovation was imbued with features of a work canonised by neoclassicism – without, however, reducing the tensions in the painting.