Monday, January 18, 2016

Abduction of Oreithyia by Boreas in Hitchcock's Vertigo

A large tapestry with a classical mythological theme plays an incidental role in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). There seems to me no likely interpretive connection between the film's Orphic theme and the tapestry's narrative. The tapestry depicts the abduction of Oreithyia by Boreas (Ov. Met. 6.683ff.) Just in case the allusion becomes apparently purposeful, I jot this quick note.

The setting is San Francisco's Palace of the Legion Honor, where Madeline Elster frequents the "Portrait of Carlotta Valdes". Directly opposite the Carlotta portrait the large colorful tapestry fills the wall. Scottie Ferguson lurks in the gallery tracking Madeline on his first day. Having ascertained that Madeline is mirroring Carlotta in posture and dress (minute 27), Scottie exits the gallery in search of a docent who can identify the portrait's subject. Hitchcock's visual shot has Scottie walk across the tapestry toward the camera. 
R-A Houasse (tapestry by P. Behagle Atelier; 1720) "Abduction of
Oriethyia by Boreas", Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

Rene-Antoine Houasse designed the silk and wool tapestry for execution in the French workshop of Phillipe Behagle ca. 1720. Designed as part of a series of tapestries with scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the piece represents conventional techniques and stylistic trends of early 18th Century neoclassicism. About 10 years before Hitchcock's film, the Legion of Honor (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) acquired the tapesty as a gift of Mrs. Bruce Kelham and Mrs. Peter Lewis. (

Vertigo(dir. A. Hitchcock, 1958); Scottie Ferguson exits the gallery in
the Palace of the Legion of Honor in front of the Houasse tapestry.
credit: 1000 Frames of Vertigo — frame 249 (click)
In the center of the tapestry (122 x 208 inches, overall) the winged Boreas, divinity of the North Wind, abducts the girl Oreithyia while the remaining seven earthbound daughters of the Athenian founding king Erechtheus, her sisters, manifest various expressions of distress. The story as told in Metamorphoses, an abduction that leads to the begetting of the Argonauts Zetes and Calais, can hardly now be counted among the most familiar of the narratives within that poem. It is slipped into the sequence of Athenian monarchy, right after the horrors of Procne and Philomela and right before Jason and Medea. Yet it contains many themes recurrent throughout the poem — abduction, divine coupling to produce prodigious offspring, and male imposition of power upon hapless girls.

Madeline's problematic identity notwithstanding, the mythological reference seems coincidental. Gavin Elster has hatched a plot together with a young woman whose name ultimately seems to be Judy Barton, "just a girl from Salina, Kansas" (1:35). The circumstances of Gavin's association with Judy/Madeline might be reflected in Boreas' abduction of Oreithyia. But the narrative never provides such information.

It would seem more logical to conclude that the tapestry is coincidentally hanging in the gallery where Hitchcock arranged for the Portait of Carlotta to be shown. That painting was commissioned and painted by John Ferren specially for the film. But the tapestry was displayed for several years as an actual part of the permanent collection. (It is no longer on display in January 2016.)

    For the Metropolitan Museum of Art's related holding, see Tapestry in the Baroque: threads of splendor (fig. 189, p. 415).
     Most information pertaining to this tapestry is taken from the FAMSF's website (consulted 18 Jan 2016):

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