C lassical Greek and Roman mythology have inspired artists from the early Renaissance to the present, with its tales of romance, heroism, tragedy, and moral lessons learned by both gods and mortals. Along with religious subjects, mythological scenes were categorized as history paintings and held the highest rank in the hierarchy of artistic genres throughout the early modern period. These paintings required artists to be well-read in the classics and skilled in depicting the (often nude) human figure in complicated compositions.
The following lots from the forthcoming Evening, Day and Online sales of Master Paintings illustrate the enduring popularity of mythology as subject matter and feature commonly depicted stories as well as unusual themes.
Master of the Campana Cassoni, Eurydice and Her Companions: A Cassone Panel
T his panel depicts the nymph Eurydice, daughter of Apollo, and her maids in a continuous narrative as they hunt and relax in the countryside. Eurydice wears a brown a blue dress and long interwoven braids and looks out at the viewer both at the far left as she feasts with her friends and standing in the center. The maids at the feast wearing green and pale iridescent blue appear again in the right background hunting a deer, and the maids in red and in yellow appear again at far-right picking flowers and shooting an arrow into the sky, respectively. Eurydice’s husband, the famous musician and poet Orpheus, tames the animals of the forest with his lute playing in the far-left background. The minor god Aristaeus, dressed in brown, goes unnoticed on the path toward Eurydice. The nymph would flee from his advances and step on a poisonous snake, Orpheus’s journey to rescue Eurydice from Hades, at first promising, would end in tragedy: he looked back at his wife before he was permitted to do so, causing her to slip back into the underworld.
Artwork is Lot 9 in the Master Paintings Evening Sale
Hendrick De Clerck, The Judgment of Paris
I n Heroides 16, Ovid relates the story of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, which ended in chaos as Eris, goddess of discord, takes revenge upon the newlyweds for failing to invite her. She throws down a golden apple labeled "for the fairest," which sparks a vanity contest among the goddesses in attendance. Jupiter sends Mercury, seen at far right, to task the shepherd Paris with the decision. He must choose between Venus, goddess of love and beauty, represented here with Cupid; Juno, chief goddess accompanied by her peacock; and Minerva, goddess of wisdom, war, and art, wearing the helmet. To win over Paris, Juno promises land and riches; Minerva, military glory; Venus, the love of the most beautiful woman on earth. Paris is shown here handing the golden apple to Venus, as he could not resist her promise of the love of Helen of Troy, daughter of the King of Sparta and wife of King Menelaus. His decision will cause the Trojan War.
Artwork is Lot 18 in the Master Paintings Evening Sale
Joseph Heintz the Younger, Pluto and Proserpina
I n this large canvas, Heintz illustrates the moment from the story of Pluto and Proserpine as recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book V). Pluto sits here on his golden chariot at the entrance to his kingdom of the underworld about to be struck by cupid’s arrow. Once struck, he will fall in love with Proserpina, who cowers away from him in the lush grove at left with her escort, the nymph Cyane, nearby. The charm and beauty of the details surrounding Proserpine, including the playful putti in the lower left corner, serve to further contrast the amusing and bizarre figures that populate the right half of the composition.
Artwork is Lot 20 in the Master Paintings Evening Sale
Nicolas Poussin, Narcissus Gazing at His Reflection and Cupid Shooting an Arrow, in a Landscape
A ccording to Ovid’s Metamorphosis (3: 339-510), Narcissus was punished for spurning the nymph Echo and made to fall in love with his own reflection. In Poussin’s intimate painting, Narcissus holds a staff and begins to gaze into a reflective pool, while Cupid prepares to shoot the arrow that will cause Narcissus to pine away for himself.
Artwork is Lot 40 in the Master Paintings Evening Sale
Jacob Jordaens, The Sleeping Antiope Approached by Jupiter
T he subject of Jupiter and Antiope, which derives from a Roman myth describing the seduction of a beautiful sleeping girl by Jupiter in the form of a satyr, was very popular in the history of art before the seventeenth century. Common with Italian predecessors like Correggio and Titian, Jordaens has depicted the lascivious Jupiter as he lifts the veil to reveal the naked girl who has fallen asleep after the Maenad dances in honor of Bacchus.
Artwork is Lot 45 in the Master Paintings Evening Sale
Antoine Coypel, Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida
T he subject of the painting is taken from Book XIV of the Iliad, where Juno, siding with the Greeks in the Trojan War, decides to divert Jupiter from his support of the Trojans with the seductive charms of Venus by borrowing her enchanted belt. Coypel depicts the two gods on Olympus: Juno, wearing the belt of Venus, seduces the unwitting Jupiter, whose eagle is still clutching thunderbolts but is almost crushed by the two embracing figures. Juno's peacock gazes down from its cloud perch at two putti lighting each other's torches on the ground below. The volcanic eruption behind indicates the power of the act over Nature herself.
Artwork is Lot 54 in the Master Paintings Evening Sale
Simone Pignoni, Artemesia
P ignoni is known to have repeated the subject of Artemesia, considered a beacon of love and conjugal fidelity, on at least two other occasions. Upon the death of her husband, Mausolus, Artemesia succeeded him on the throne of Caria in Asia Minor. In addition to drinking a mixture of ashes and water in his honor, as depicted in the present painting, Artemesia built a monument to him in Helicanassus. It is from this monument, which would become one of the wonders of the ancient world, that the word' mausoleum' derives.
Artwork is Lot 144 in the Master Paintings & Sculpture Day Sale
Roman School, Cyparissus Turning Into a Cyprus Tree, With His Slain Stag Beyond
I n Greek mythology, the origin of the cyprus tree, classical symbol of mourning, is explained with the story of Cyparissus, a favorite of Apollo. Cyparissus kept a tame stag as a pet and accidentally kills it while hunting with his javelin. His grief was so overwhelming that he turned into a cyprus tree. Here he stands poised to transform as foliage sprouts from his head, and the slain stag can be seen in right background.
Artwork is Lot 230 in the Master Paintings & Sculpture Day Sale
Francesco Montelatici, Called Cecco Bravo, Theseus Abandoning Ariadne
T he scene most probably depicts Theseus abandoning a sleeping Ariadne on the island of Naxos with his ship prepared on stormy seas in the distance. It alternatively may depict the Trojan hero Aeneas trying to clandestinely arrange his fleet of ships and leave his beloved Dido in Carthage after receiving a message from Jupiter reminding him of his destiny in Italy. This would be the moment just before Dido realizes his plans, leading to her deep despair and ultimate death.
Artwork is Lot 235 in the Master Paintings & Sculpture Day Sale
Francesco Albani, Toilet of Venus
T he Toilet of Venus is an imagined subject derived from the myths about Venus, goddess of love and beauty, and provided artists like Albani an opportunity to paint beautiful women in various states of nudity. Such subjects were popular among erudite and noble patrons as decoration in their residences, and Albani's larger versions of this composition served that purpose in both France and Italy.
Artwork is Lot 236 in the Master Paintings & Sculpture Day Sale
Carlo Francesco Nuvolone, The Death of Dido, Queen of Carthage
A ccording to Virgil's Aeneid, Dido is abandoned by her lover, the Trojan War hero Aeneas, and vows to kill herself. She climbs the pyre intended to burn Aeneas' possessions and stabs herself with her sword. Nuvolone's composition highlights the chaotic drama of the subject matter but also the sensuality of Dido's body in the moment just before her death.
Artwork is Lot 282 in the Master Paintings & Sculpture Day Sale
Attributed to Adriaen Van Stalbemt, Diana and Her Nymphs Bathing
D iana, goddess of the hunt, was often depicted resting or bathing with her group of virginal nymphs. This landscape scene provided an opportunity for the artist to depict the female nude in a mythological context and demonstrate his facility with the human figure, which set him apart from other landscapists.
Artwork is Lot 517 in Old Masters Online
These and other superb artworks will feature in the upcoming Master Paintings Evening Sale, Master Paintings & Sculpture Day Sale and Old Masters Online part of Sotheby's Masters Week 2020. Exhibitions will open to the public in New York from 24–31 January.
The Master Paintings Evening Sale will be held on 29 January at 5:00 PM EST in New York, and the Master Paintings & Sculpture Day Sale will be held the following morning, 30 January at 10AM EST in New York. Old Masters Online closes on 4 February at 12PM EST. For more information and to register to bid, please click on the following sale pages.