A contemporary of such giants of mural painting as the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), and Diego Rivera (1886-1957) as well as the American muralist icon Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Savage developed his own unique style of mural painting that melded classical form with a contemporary Art Deco style of painting.
Eugene Francis Savage was still very much a late proponent of allegorical academic figure painting, a tradition which he continued while he was a Professor at Yale well into the middle of the twentieth century. Savage had previously been awarded the Prix de Rome Prize from the Art Institute of Chicago. During his fellowship at the American Academy in Rome from 1912-1915 he had ample opportunity to study the Roman and Greek sculptures that dot this ancient city. Savage learned to model his figures in a classical academic style, creating drawings of the human form and studying traditional mural techniques. Such intimate first hand knowledge of classical sculpture coupled with the education he received from the great color theorist Hermann Groeber (1865-1935) in Munich in 1913 as well as his presumed exposure to Expressionist Art that was emerging in that German city at the time directly influenced the direction of Savage’s art. A devoted advocate of academic painting Savage incorporated these classical elements and allegorical subject matter within a thoroughly modern color palette of rich luxurious jewel like tones. The resulting creation is a highly sophisticated work that melds the old seamlessly with the new in a format that represents unique Savage’s painting style.
This painting recounts the mythological story of Helen of Troy, who was the daughter of Leda and Zeus, sister of Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux (the Dioscuri), and wife of Menelaus. The beauty of Helen of Troy was so overwhelming that Theseus once abducted her. Before Helen married Menelaus, all her other suitors swore to help bring Helen back should she be abducted again. When Paris of Troy abducted Helen, the suitors were obliged to honor their oath and so the Trojan War was fought to bring her back home. Helen of Troy is thus referred to as “the face that launched a thousand ships.” The figures of Helen of Troy and her captors in this painting are classically modeled, reflecting Savage’s academic training and firsthand study of Greek and Roman sculpture but also reveal a forward thinking color palette of rich jewel tones. The result is a modern interpretation that is both refined and unique to Savage.