Above is Polites, Son of Priam, Observes the Movements of the Greeks Near Troy (1834, oil on canvas, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Saint-Étienne), painted by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1809 – 1864). Flandrin is better known for his Jeune Homme Nu Assis au Bord de la Mer (Nude Youth Sitting by the Sea, 1836, oil on canvas, Louvre Museum, Paris). Both paintings show a nude, seated youth and both celebrate the beauty of the male form.
The above work depicts the scene from the second book of Homer’s Iliad in which
“Priam’s son Polites, who, being fleet of foot, was stationed as watchman for the Trojans on the tomb of old Aesyetes, to look out for any sally of the Achaeans.”
“Sally” in this context means “advance.” In other words, Polites was watching for the Greek army as it advanced toward Troy. “Being fleet of foot…” All that running did his body good. Flandrin was aware of this passage and gives us a lean, athletic, and well-exercised young body. And, lucky for us, it must have been really hot in Troy that day.
In spite of the fact that Polites has been assigned the weighty task of keeping a lookout for enemy troops, his pose is relaxed and almost meditative, as he stares out over the plains beyond Troy. In his depiction of Polites, Flandrin combines the ideal with a note of almost superrealism. Polites, seated atop a classical pedestal (Aesyetes’ tomb), is the very image of idealized youth and classical male beauty, but at the same time, Flandrin has gone to the trouble to render the youth’s dark and wiry pubes, which is very unusual for the style and the era in which Flandrin worked. I myself can think of hardly any examples of pubic hair being shown in paintings prior to the 20th century. Moreover, by including this subtle detail, Flandrin draws the viewer’s gaze to the Polite’s genital area. Although the youth’s most private and intimate parts remain hidden from view, our attention rests there nonetheless.