Apotheosis of Nelson

Although the victory at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 was a cause for celebration in Britain, it resulted in the loss of Nelson. His death at the height of his fame inspired a cult of hero-worship.

Legrand's interpretation hovers between the romantic and heroic and adapts a classical reading of an apotheosis, depicting a deified Nelson received into immortality among the gods on Olympus. This is witnessed by grieving men on the deck of a boat, while to the right the Battle of Trafalgar continues to rage. These mortals consist of a sergeant of Marines to the right in a red jacket, a Naval lieutenant on the left in a blue jacket and a central figure of a common seaman with a bare chest gesturing towards the action above them. Nelson's hat and sword remain in the centre of the deck. Nelson is making his sinuous ascent towards Olympus and the court of the gods amidst a blaze of light that provides a contrast with the dark smoke of battle. On the right Neptune, the god of the sea, holds his attribute of a trident as he leans down to support Nelson. Below him to the right a female figure holds long straight trumpets, attributes of Fame, in each hand, together with a proclamation in her right announcing Nelson's victories and commending him to the gods. Above Neptune, Fame is personified as a female figure holding a crown of stars as a symbol of immortality over Nelson's head. She is traditionally found in the company of the illustrious dead and is associated with historical figures, such as Nelson.

Britannia kneels on the left, wearing a helmet, red mantle and a white tunic. With arms outstretched towards Nelson, she personifies a grieving Britain. Her shield rests by her knees and her trident on her left shoulder. Above her, a female figure holds a laurel branch, another attribute of Fame, in her right hand, and places a crown of laurels on Nelson's head to represent victory. Above and leaning forward is Mars, the god of war, with his helmet and his left arm outstretched as he prepares to receive Nelson. Behind him on the left is Hercules, who personifies physical strength and courage, and triumphs over evil against great odds. He is associated with Minerva on the extreme upper left, representing the complementary virtue of moral strength or wisdom. She is wearing a helmet and armour, and carries spear and shield.

Presiding above them, Jupiter, the supreme ruler of the gods and mortals, sits on his throne. His attribute of an eagle, a symbol of power and victory, hovers behind him. At Nelson's feet an old woman wearing a white headdress represents the three Fates, the determiners of man's destiny. The attributes and figures in the narrative unite to symbolize Nelson's earthly virtues. Later versions of this painting were made, since in this interpretation the artist has mistakenly concealed Nelson's left arm while depicting his right arm broadly gesturing, although this was the arm he had lost in 1797. A later version dated 1818 rectifies this mistake. This earlier work, signed 'Le Grand faciebat', may have been influenced by Benjamin West's 1808 interpretation of the same subject (see BHC2905).

Object Details

ID: BHC2906
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Nelson, Navy, Nation Gallery
Creator: Legrand, Scott Pierre Nicolas
Date made: circa 1805-18
People: Nelson, Horatio
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Painting: 635 mm x 535 mm Frame: 806 mm x 700 mm x 82 mm Weight: 10.4 kg

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