Rescue of Livia and Octavia

Livia and Octavia (composite, retouched) by D. Forbes, Mar 1961. Click image for larger 1024 portrait.

Livia and Octavia

There is nothing in this short article, I am afraid, that didn’t have to be retouched.

The oil painting Livia and Octavia was done by my youngest brother Dana Forbes, in March 1961, when he would have been about fourteen. It hung in the living room of our family home, until some years after 1964, that being the year I took several photographs of the painting on returning home from military service. The original canvas was about 4×6 feet. You can see a larger 688×1024 reconstructed graphic by clicking the image on the left.

The painting, family history, and Roman history all have some intriguing background behind them, much of which I can only guess. I suspect there is a great deal more here, associatively, than meets the eye.  Though this is mostly speculative, I see those histories as troubled and curiously intertwined.

My brother ultimately renounced his obvious talent for art, and destroyed all of his paintings, I was told. To rescue this one, I scanned the slides, both color and black-and-white,  back in 1999. I discovered a host of serious archival issues with these slides. I had photographed them all obliquely, so they suffered from perspective distortion (parallel lines are no longer parallel). The biggest show-stopper: the camera flash obliterated most of Octavia’s face in the only good color slide.

I had to brush up on my ancient Roman history to provide the historical backdrop. Livia Drusilla, as the powerful wife of Roman emperor Augustus, was silent witness to some of the worst military, family and social horrors of the period, but Livia was also a perpetrator: she gained a sordid reputation for poisoning those who stood in the way of the ruling family intrigues. She also became a model for Rome as the obedient wife who works to accomplish family goals while remaining in the sidelines, so as to not upstage her powerful husband. Octavia was the sister of the mighty Augustus, who in turn was also called Octavian. She later married Mark Antony and raised his children. Augustus exploited the high social standing of the two women heavily, to promote the majesty of his imperial court.

What did these two women really see? Was there a modern familial parallel, perhaps psychological, that inspired my brother to give faces to the legends?

When I scanned these slides in 1999 on a Macintosh, I quickly found the problems mentioned earlier; additionally, the emulsions of most slides of this era were already flaking heavily. Besides the task of reconstruction of a single usable image, there remained dozens of hours painstakingly retouching many hundreds of flecks and blotches in the scanned images. Since these were the only surviving  negatives of that period, I spent hundreds of hours of retouching all of the scans as best as I could. I have never been a “PhotoShop artist”, but my skills in 1999 were greatly more meager.

The 1999 reconstruction was far from complete, and will probably remain so. However, I had able to match up a section of the black and white scan to scale and patch the camera-flash obliteration of Livia’s face. I took colors from the good left half to restore color matches on the right half, as best as I could by guesswork, and most of this at 300%-500% zoom magnification.

My personal art skills are undeveloped and extremely limited, which is why I stick to photography.  It was at this point I really began to appreciate the labor in the full detail work of the original artist, which I could not re-create, and I wished that I had picked up even a smattering of understanding of painting in oils, along the way.

The restorative task I undertook, without the training of someone who knows the trade of the art world, was probably hopeless. By the time I put the project to bed, still in 1999, I had recreated a reasonable facsimile of the oil painting I admired and remembered, but the closer I looked, the more work remained to be done, and me, without the tools to do it. I never did any more. Thusly, at some point, must end any project.

I never mentioned this project to my brother. There are some things, by tacit agreement, we no longer ever discuss. His promising development as a young artist, and the tumultous family history in those youthful years at home, are but two of these subjects that remain locked in the dust of the past, like the painting and the history it represents.

For more information on Livia, Octavia and the Augustan Age, I found a large compendium of material in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus.

As for the rest of the story, if any, once upon a time there were a few who might have insisted there had to be a subtext behind that painting. I am the only other one left now, and I don’t know. My brother might know, but I wouldn’t be dredging up the past to remind him, and he wouldn’t be talking about what he might remember. Nonetheless, art speaks its own language, and the image of the two women requires a question:  are they still trying to tell us something? What was it?

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