Probably purchased from the artist by Martinus van Langenhoven, Antwerp, 1646;
Sir Archibald Campbell of Succoth, 2nd Bt., Garscube, Dumbartonshire, by 1854;
Thence descent to Sir George Islay Campbell of Succoth, 6th Bt., Garscube, Dumbartonshire;
His deceased sale, London, Christie's, July 19, 1946, lot 28, for 260 guineas, to Samuel Hartveld;1
With Samuel Hartveld, New York;
Sold by his estate, Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, May 21, 1951, lot 98, reproduced pl. IV;2
Private collection, Belgium;
With Alain Tarica, New York, from whom purchased by the family of the present owner.
G.F. Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, London 1854, vol. III, pp. 291-2;
M. Rooses, Jordaens, His Life and Work, London and New York, 1908, pp. 143-44;
R.A. d'Hulst, Jordaens Drawings, London 1974. Translated from the Dutch by P.S. Falla, vol. I, pp. 81-82;
R.A. d'Hulst, Jordaens, New York 1982. Translated from the Dutch by P.S. Falla, vol. I, pp. 103, 218-220, reproduced, fig. 188;
R.A. d'Hulst, Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), Antwerp 1993, reproduced p.108, fig. A26.a.
The story of Mercury and Argus is found in Ovid's Metamorphoses, I:568-746. It is part of the longer tale of Jupiter and Io, the beautiful young woman whom Jupiter seduced and then transformed into a white heifer in order to hide her from his jealous wife. Juno, of course, discovered the deception, and sent Argus, her hundred-eyed watchman, to guard the poor creature and prevent her from returning to her family. Jupiter then dispatched Mercury to kill Argus and free Io.
The tale was one that clearly fascinated Jordaens, for he depicted various incidents from the story over the course of his long career. In the present work, he shows Mercury having just lulled Argus to sleep and about to draw his sword and slay the elderly watchman. Jordaen's first fully developed treatment of this scene is a canvas now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. It dates from early the 1620s and is smaller, almost square in format and shows only the central part of the scene. There are two known replicas, one in the National Gallery of Victoria, datable to circa 1635-40 and the other in the Musée de l'Art Wallon, Liege. In the mid-1640s Jordaens returned to the theme, but in a more expansive form, extending the landscape to provide more breathing room for the main actors. That composition is known in two versions, the present picture and a second, now in a private collection in Malmö, which includes two additional cows in the left middle ground.
The present work is the more famous version and has long been associated with the Mercury and Argus that Martinus van Langenhoven purchased from Jordaens along with four other works in 1646. Apparently Van Langenhoven had some questions about whether they were by the master himself, so on August 25, 1648, Jordaens filed a deed explaining his working methods in rather convoluted terms and confrmed the authenticity of the paintings.3 Schelte à Bolswert engraved the composition in reverse, and it would have been widely known throughout the Low Countries and beyond. There was also a second engraving, by François Ragot, that shows the picture in the correct orientation. Visual evidence suggests that Mercury and Argus may have made its way to France by the early eighteenth century, for the composition appears at the upper right of the famous Gersaint Shopsign by Watteau of 1721. Although the picture in the painting could have been based on one of the engravings, it shows Argus in a similar red robe, suggesting it is based on the painting itself. 4 Since the Shopshign is not a depiction of a Gersaint's actual gallery but an imaginary compendium of important and influential works, the inclusion of Mercury and Argus demonstrates in what high regard it was held.
Mercury and Argus betrays Jordaens' characteristic combination of energy and naivety. Mercury has dropped his flute on a conveniently placed plant in order to draw his sword, while Argus sleeps on and the surrounding animals seem quite oblivious of the drama of the situation. Only the white heifer, Io, seems more alert, though she continues to chew on some delicate plants that grow out of the decaying stump. Jordaens has painted the landscape in sprightly dashes and curves that capture the delicacy of the leafy branches. The cattle, by contrast, are rendered in stronger, broader strokes that approximate their rough hides. As for poor Argus, Jordaens lovingly depicts the wrinkled flesh and thinning hair of the old watchman who had literally outlived his usefulness.
1. The sale date incorrectly recorded as July 19, 1946 in the 1978 exhibition catalogue (see above) and subsequent publications.
2. The sale date incorrectly recorded as May 21, 1952 in the 1978 exhibition catalogue (see above) and subsequent publications.
3. M. Rooses, p. 137 (see Litertature).
4. The issue is, however clouded by the fact that in its present state that portion of the Enseigne de Gersaint is not by Watteau's own hand. See P. Rosenberg in, Watteau 1684-1721, exhibition catalogue, Washington 1984, p. 455-56.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale