This dynamic yet elegant composition by Laurent de la Hyre depicts the story of Angelica and Medoro, from Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso
, one of the greatest epic poems of the 16th century.
Set during the war between Charlemagne’s Christian Paladins and the Saracen army, the
story describes the romance of the Christian knight Orlando, who was courting the Pagan princess Angelica. His love is unrequited, however, as she instead falls for the wounded Saracen Medoro. The scene depicted here (Canto 19:36) shows the two lovers carving their intertwined names on trees and rocks throughout the forest.
Signed and dated 1641
, the large-scale masterpiece shows de la Hyre at the height of his powers. The composition is complex and bold: figures are intertwined and crowded together on one side of the painting. Angelica and Medoro's overlapping knees allude to their passionate romance, while her left leg is stretched out not only to keep herself balanced as she sits upon her lover's lap, but also to elegantly triangulate and balance the overall composition of the painting. The six putti
in the trees above are active and eager, bringing both tenderness and lightheartedness to the scene. De la Hyre's masterful and sophisticated landscape sets the tranquil and romantic scene.
After studying at the château of Fontainebleau between 1622 and 1625, de la Hyre went to work in the celebrated studio of Georges Lallemant, where Nicolas Poussin and Michel Dorigny also studied. He received his first important commissions from the Paris house of the Capuchins in the Marais for their chapel of St. Francis. These works were well-received and brought him further employment, and this may explain why he was not tempted to go to Italy to complete his artistic education as many of his fellow painters did. By the end of the 1630s, de la Hyre was a highly recognized painter and greatly in favor with various religious orders of Paris, with Cardinal de Richelieu as his fervent protector. When the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture
was founded in 1648, de la Hyre was appointed one of the twelve "Anciens," or professors, taking an active part in the current debate about perspective. During the late 1640s and 1650s, de la Hyre had many private patrons including financiers, members of the Paris Parlement and royal officials, producing some of the most important masterpieces.
Charles Sterling, the eminent French art historian, wrote of de la Hyre: "He was a subtle painter, with a light brushstroke, a sense of delicate atmospheric values, and skill in combining bright, unusual colors. La Hyre heralds the French eighteenth century, foreshadowing both Boucher's grace and the affected Neoclassical sobriety of the pupils of David."1
An earlier version of the composition, which is in a more vertical format, omitting the tree on the right, and features five putti
instead of six, was described in a 1777 sale and is now lost.
A later copy of that picture is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille (inv. no. 253).2
1. P. Rosenberg and J. Thuillier, under Literature, p. 110.
2. Ibid., p. 232, cat. nos. 188 and 188c. The latter is reproduced.