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The Ordeal of Mazeppa

Louis Boulanger

(1806 - 1867) | 835.3

Date : 1827 | Medium : Oil on canvas

A page at the court of the king of Poland in the second half of the 17th century, Mazeppa was a semi-legendary Ukrainian hero of shrewd intelligence and great beauty, who roamed across Europe in search of adventure. His life inspired Lord Byron’s narrative poem, published in 1818, which would be a fertile source of creativity for Romantic artists. Théodore Géricault was the first to take inspiration from the theme and Victor Hugo followed suit in his Orientales, dedicating the poem about Mazeppa to the young painter, Louis Boulanger.

To this day, Boulanger is little known, despite that fact that he was a highly successful painter from the age of 21, when he used the episode of the Ordeal of Mazeppa as the subject of a large-scale work that was more than five metres high.

When a Palatine count discovers that the young man is having a love affair with his wife he sentences him to be tied naked to horse and sent back to Ukraine, his native country. Byron writes,

‘With sudden wrath I [Mazeppa] wrenched my head,
And snapped the cord, which to the mane
Had bound my neck in lieu of rein,
And, writhing half my form about,
Howled back my curse; […]’

And so the hero makes it known that he will seek revenge and looks to the day when

‘There is not of that castle gate,
Its drawbridge and portcullis weight,
Stone, bar, moat, bridge, or barrier left, […]’

The painting radiates great strength and faithfully translates the creative energy of Byron’s text. The accentuated chiaroscuro juxtaposes the paleness of the young page’s body with the surrounding darkness, setting the scene at day break. The colours are intense, the touches of the brush broad and sweeping, applied with a vigour that communicates the violence of the scene and particularly the terror of the horse which is ready to set off at gallop on its wild journey. The contrast between the focus of the action and the small scene set above it, where the count and his court observe the turmoil in attitudes that seem almost self-parodying, suggests the hero’s ultimate victory.