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Column: All you need to know about the painting in Brenau’s Pearce Auditorium
Johnny Vardeman

The painting on the ceiling provokes curiosity and stares from anyone sitting in Pearce Auditorium at Brenau University — unless you’re in the cheap seats under the balcony where you can’t see it.

Aeneas and Dido, subjects of the fresco, have looked down on audiences since the place was built in 1898. Even then, there were questions about “Who are these guys?” and “How did the artwork come about?”

It was a gift of the Class of 1897, Georgia Female Seminary, as Brenau was called at the time.

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Painting of "Aeneas at the Court of Dido" on the ceiling of Pearce Auditorium. (Photo courtesy Johnny Vardeman)

The architect of the building was Atlantan G.W. Foote, who hired Lou Brannon, described as an itinerant theater artist, or set designer. 

Copying from a 3-inch photograph of the 1815 work of French artist P. Narcisse Guerin, Brannon is said to have hung from the ceiling 15 weeks and two days painting the mural. You can Google Guerin’s name and find a picture of his original painting, which differs in detail from the one on Pearce’s ceiling.

The painting is based on the 1685 opera “Dido and Aeneas,” Dido the queen and founder of Carthage in what is now Tunisia and Aeneas, a heroic Trojan warrior. Dido committed suicide because her lover Aeneas sailed off into the Mediterranean sunset. 

The painting depicts Dido reclining on the marble portico of her palace, Aeneas’s bulging eyeballs amorously ogling her beauty. The other two figures are a child, Ascanius, and his attendant. Ascanius, according to mythology, became quite a warrior himself.

The seminary’s 1901 catalog in the Brenau archives called the painting “a splendid work of art” and a “magnificent painting.” Some critics, however, panned it as pretty pedestrian.

Whatever, the painting is the centerpiece of Pearce Auditorium and has been a beloved conversation piece and icon for generations of students and those who attended the vast variety of events there.

When Pearce underwent its first major renovation in the early 1980s, a Class of 1941 alumna was quoted in a newspaper article as saying some students joked about Aeneas and Dido, yet were worried the familiar artwork would be destroyed. But, “there it is in all its horrible glory,” the former student said. Plaster falling from the ceiling had prompted the renovation.

Architect Jack Bailey said the original painting couldn’t be salvaged, so they had photographs of it taken and stuck them to the ceiling in four panels. It is said some Brenau alumnae at the time scrounged fist-sized pieces of plaster from the original painting for treasured souvenirs.

When the painting was first revealed during the auditorium’s opening in 1898, people then, as now, wanted to know more about Aeneas and Dido. W.H. Craig, editor of the Gainesville Eagle, admitting he didn’t know Dido from Aeneas, asked Gainesvillian A.D. Candler, then running for governor, about the subjects of the painting. Candler escorted him into the barber shop and spent an hour explaining their history.

“We thought it was the prettiest story we ever heard,” Craig wrote later, “although there were some names in it that would tear the teeth out of a sausage grinder.”

That caused the “Dido painting,” as some called it, to produce a little levity in a gubernatorial campaign that otherwise “dragged a trifle” that year. The Macon Telegraph had a little fun with the Eagle editor’s barber shop enlightenment. Noting a dearth of discussion about real issues, it suggested a candidate debate about Dido “on the Georgia stump will add to the gaiety of the political season.”

Candler won the election with 69% of the vote over Populist candidate John R. Hogan, who probably didn’t know Dido from Dodo.

That’s probably more information than you need about Aeneas and Dido. But if you want more, you can Google “Dido” and find reams of it, in addition to a bevy of bare-bosomed Didos stabbing herself with a dagger. One might wonder why she didn’t use it on Aeneas instead.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or His column publishes weekly.