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François-André Vincent, French, 1746–1816
Arria and Paetus, 1784
oil on canvas
39 3/4 x 48 inches
Funds given by Mr. and Mrs. John Peters MacCarthy, Director’s Discretionary Fund, funds given by Christian B. Peper, and gift of Mr. Horace Morison by exchange 27:2008

Arria (ARR-ee-uh) and her husband Paetus (PIE-tus) look as though they are on a stage performing a scene from a play. Arria leans forward and points to her head, ready to plunge the knife into herself; Paetus shrinks in horror at the thought of imitating Arria’s actions. The dark background and dramatic lighting emphasize the drama of their poses and expressions. This painting is based on ancient Roman history in which Paetus joins a conspiracy against the emperor. When the plot fails, Paetus is cast out of Rome. Eventually, he is called back to the city to be imprisoned. Arria knows that in order to avoid the shame of going to jail, the only honorable thing for her husband to do is commit suicide. When Paetus proves unwilling, Arria seizes the knife to demonstrate. Arria’s actions would have been seen as courageous in ancient times.

For younger students:
See if you can pose like one of the two people in the painting.
What do the two characters’ expressions and gestures indicate they are each feeling?

For older students:
Why do you think the artist chose to depict this moment from the story?
Compare the figure of Arria to that of Judith in Judith and Holofernes. Describe some similarities and differences.

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