Ulysses and Neoptolemus take Heracles’ bow and arrows from Philoctetes, François-Xavier Fabre, 1799-1800

Lord Bristol orders Fabre this ambitious artwork, which subject is in the mood during 18th Century, as the tragedy written by Sophocles had been translated by the friend of Fabre Vittorio Alfieri.

On the road to the siege of Troy, Philoctetes is abandoned on the island of Lemnos because of the stench of a wound caused by the bite of a snake. He survives thanks to Heracles’ bow and arrows, which never miss their target. But, according to a prophecy, the Greeks could beat the Trojans only with the help of these arrows. Ulysses comes back to Lemnos with Neoptolemus, son of Achilles and wants him to seize the weapons by means of ruse. The young warrior gains Philoctetes’ trust, and Philoctetes gives him the bow and the arrows. At this moment appears Ulysses, who takes Neoptolemus away on the road to Troy. Fabre chose to represent this moment, the most dramatic, when Philoctetes realizes that he has been fooled and that he has no more weapons to protect himself.
Several studies show the care Fabre used to compose the painting. The preparatory drawing shows the characters nude in positions very close to the final work. However, in the preparatory painting, it is obvious that Fabre was not sure about Philoctetes’ position, getting up and surprised about the trick he is the victim of. In the same way, Neoptolemus’ attitude is highlighted in the final painting: he is shown as loyal and definitely saddened by Philoctetes’ fate. The composition is more dynamic with a vanishing point on the left, as the sketch was more static.
Another interesting detail is the dead bird of prey: it was behind Philoctetes in the sketch, and was moved in front of him in the final composition. Showing the care of Fabre about those realistic details, this bleeding eagle owl is the subject of a separate painted sketch. The nervous style of the sketch leaves the place to a careful, smooth, and conscientious execution, that freezes the action and the dramatic tension.

The Philoctetes is the most commendable effort made by Fabre to match the great History painting in the style of David that was very popular at that time in Paris. After passing between the hands of many private collectors, the “huge Philoctetes” (using Fabre’s very own words) is bought in 1826 by French State. In 2006, the musée du Louvre deposits the painting in Montpellier, and the creation process of this artwork (studies, sketches,f inal composition) may now be seen in a whole in the Musée Fabre de Montpellier Agglomération.