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Irene (fl. 200 BCE?)

Irene (fl. 200 bce?)

Ancient Greek painter who executed a portrait of a young maiden at Ephesus. Name variations: Eirene, Yrenes. Pronunciation: ee-RAY-nay. Date and place of birth uncertain; daughter and pupil of the painter Cratinus.

Irene is the second female painter mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History 35.147-8. All of the few facts we know of her life and career are found in his account; the Greek author Clement of Alexandria also mentions her father Cratinus, a painter of whom we have no other record. Pliny's direct statement that she learned her skill at her father's feet, repeated in the case of Aristarete , is worthy of notice. Pliny mentions just one of her works, saying that she painted "a maiden" (puellam) at Eleusis. That this portrait might have had some significance in the rites of the mystery cult of Demeter, an Olympian who may be characterized broadly as an Earth Mother or goddess of corn, seems to be supported by two considerations. First, Eleusis was the ancient center of Demeter worship. Second, the Latin puella translates directly from the Greek koré, which was the cultic name of Persephone, Demeter's daughter and a major figure in her myth, found in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

The next name after Irene in Pliny's list of female artists is Calypso . Both an imperfect text and the fact that this name was usually reserved for immortals has led some to suggest that Calypso (the sea nymph who imprisoned Odysseus on her island for 11 years) is actually the mythical subject of another painting by Irene. If this is true, the three portraits that follow the name Calypso are actually Irene's, making her the author of "An Old Man," "The Juggler Theodorus," and "The Dancer Alcisthenes"—five paintings in all. Further, if this Alcisthenes is identical with a man of the same name mentioned in an extant inscription at Delphi, then we may date Irene's working career to the years around 200 bce.

Giovanni Boccaccio">

I thought her work worthy of some praise, since it is very unusual for women, and is not pursued without a high degree of talent, which is customarily most rare in them.

Giovanni Boccaccio

Despite the lack of sure information on Irene in the Natural History, she (along with Timarete and Iaia ) gained the attention of the 14th-century Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio in his work On Famous Women, where he introduces her as "Yrenes." While Boccaccio's presentation of Irene and other ancient women painters adds nothing factual to Pliny and in some places misinterprets him, his discussions are both amusing and indicative of the place of women in the society and historical consciousness of early Renaissance Italy. Further, by imitating Pliny's interest in female artists, Boccaccio helped to make other writers aware of their achievements to such a degree that Wendy Slatkin can say, "It would be hard to exaggerate the importance for the subsequent history of women artists of Pliny's brief paragraph about the women artists of antiquity and Boccaccio's elaborations on it." It seems clear, then, that though we possess neither remains of Irene's work nor knowledge of its influence, she has nevertheless exerted some creative force in the history of Western culture. (For further background information, see entry on Aristarete.)

sources and suggested reading:

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Tutte le Opere. Edited by Vittorio Zaccaria. Vol. 10: De Mulieribus Claris. 2nd ed. Verona: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1970, pp. 242–245.

"Eirene," in Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildender Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Edited by Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker. Leipzig: W. Engelmann, 1908–50.

"Eirene," in Enciclopedia dell'Arte Antica Classica e Orientiale. Rome: Instituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1958–66.

Slatkin, Wendy. Women Artists in History: From Antiquity to the Twentieth Century. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985.

Peter H. O'Brien , Boston University

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