Ambitious young artists in eighteenth-century France aspired to the prestigious Grand Prix award, which enabled them to live and study in Rome as French painters had since the time of Claude Lorrain. Pierre Peyron won the Grand Prix in 1773, and his seven years in Rome absorbing the lessons of Italian and ancient examples were particularly useful in his development of the Neoclassical style, made famous by Jacques Louis David. Upon his return to Paris, Peyron enjoyed patronage that included a commission from King Louis XVI for a painting of the death of Alcestis. The original version was exhibited in 1785 and is now in the Louvre. Dated 1794, the Museum’s smaller version reveals some compositional changes. The servant in the center has been repositioned and redrawn to present a profile suggested by antique sculpture. Details of ancient furniture are simplified, and more emphasis is placed on the classically inspired drapery folds.
The subject is the conjugal virtue of the heroine of the tragic drama Alcestis by the fifth-century B.C. Greek poet Euripides. When her husband angered the gods, Alcestis volunteered to give her life so that his might be spared. The grieving husband and especially the child heighten the sadness of the death scene. The earnestness of Peyron’s subject, popularized in France a few years earlier by German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Alceste, reflects the official rejection of the frivolous Rococo period and its obsession with games of love. The attitude toward ancient models for feminine virtue makes an interesting contrast with the coquettish vestal virgin of Nattier (also in the Museum's collection).