En Garde!


This week I have read The Shot by  Aleksandr Pushkin, a short story where the sense of honour and the idea of revenge revolve around a long-awaited two-tier duel. Vivid, fascinating, the short story makes you hold your breath. So much so that it made me think about the idea of a duel. The first thing that I learned is that  Aleksandr Pushkin died at the age of 37 after a duel having participated in many. What is a duel? According to the Oxford dictionary it is:

A prearranged contest with deadly weapons between two people in order to settle a point of honour.

It is such an epic moment that brings about so many emotions that I could not help but wonder how did artist represent duels? Would their artwork convey these ideas of imperceptible fear, stoicity in front of death or maybe this slight insanity that comes with it. There are many famous duels aside from Pushkin’s. Here are a few examples:

  • Alexander Hamilton, the former US Treasury Secretary died in a duel against Aaron Burr in 1804.
  • Louis Edmond Duranty, an art critic, challenged Edouard Manet, his friend, who had slapped because he barely wrote about his latest exhibition. Emile Zola was his Manet’s witness.
  • Marcel Proust and the journalist Jean Lorrain who hinted that Proust was having an affair with Madame Alphonse Daudet‘s son, Lucien.

They have been depicted by artists but look more like illustrations simply documenting historical facts.

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The duels that have been represented with brio are fictional ones. Here are three that I found particularly fascinating. In these masterpieces, the fright, the drama and the melodrama, the predominance of one character over the other are palpable.


1. David Victorious over Goliath, Caravaggio, circa 1600, Museo del Prado


2. Achilles Defeating Hector, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-32, Musee des Beaux Arts de Pau


3. Fight with Cudgels, Francisco Goya, c. 1820–1823, Museo del Prado



And today? Duels are illegal and one would easily understand why. But what happened to this romantic yet tragic idea that brought two men to face each other in view of one’s death. It was relayed in movie theatres with more or less intensity generally bringing because of its qualities a climax.

1. The Jedis


2. James Bond in Die Another Day 9although it ends in a handshake)

3. Harry Potter in the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets




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