Across the foreground of this painting appears a beautiful frieze-like arrangement of gods, interrupted only by the trunk of a thick birch tree that rises upwards through the composition. Mars (A), the god of war, with his helmet, shield, and sword, wraps his arms around the reclining Venus (B), the goddess of love and fertility, whose nude body is loosely draped in a transparent fabric and whose left hand holds a delicate glass of wine. Upon her left leg leans her son, Cupid (C), with his signature arrows. To their left, a drunken Bacchus (D) raises a red jug to his mouth, while Ceres (E) leans into his lap—her wheat and wares from a cornucopia scattered in front of her. The identity of the man to her left remains uncertain, though suggestions have ranged from Saturn to Pluto (F). Towards the right of the foreground sits Pan (G), the god of the woods, with his pipe, pointed ears, hairy legs and hooves. Surrounding him are a number of muses (H) playing instruments, above whom appear two standing waiters to the gods (I). Near this area rises a thick birch tree whose bending motion mirrors the form of many of the figures in the scene. A thick cloud blends into upper leaves of the tree, atop of which sits Fame (J), with her trumpet, surrounded by a few flying putti. At the left edge of the composition stands Hercules (K) with his club, while armored Minerva (L) sits nearby at the base of another tree whose branches and trunk are largely replaced by a plume of clouds. In the upper left, Luna (M), the goddess of the moon, leans over a thick cloud looking down upon the scene below. Just below Iris (N) who reclines on her rainbow at upper center sits Apollo (O), as he plays his instruments and hovers just above the feast at center. Although many of the figures seated at the banquet table are difficult to identify, Diana (P) with a crescent moon on her brow seems to place her arm around Mercury (Q), who wears a red hat. While the gods are being served by a number of male and female waiters, Ganymede (R), the cup bearer of the gods, appears in front of the table, pouring wine into a glass cup.
Variously identified in the past as The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis and The Wedding of Cupid and Psyche, the subject of the present work should more simply be regarded as A Banquet of the Gods. The first description of the subject cannot be correct because of the absence of Eris, the goddess of discord. She was the only goddess not invited to the marriage celebration of Peleus and Thetis and revenged herself by bringing the Golden Apple to the wedding banquet. The apple was to be given to "the fairest" and was subsequently given to Paris to choose who was the most beautiful goddess (a decision that eventually lead to the Trojan War). As Kloek points out, the second title for the picture is also unlikely because of Cupid's position in the composition: he is not seated at the banquet table, as would be expected of a bridegroom, but is in the center of the foreground casually leaning against Venus's thigh. Kloek sees Cupid and the other foreground figures as central to the meaning of the whole, however. Separated into three distinct groups, from left to right— Bacchus, Ceres and (possibly) Pluto; Mars, Venus and Cupid; and Pan and four muses—they represent the pleasures of food and drink, sexual love, as well as music and lust: themes that recur regularly throughout the Mannerist period.1
Compositions depicting Banquets of the Gods provided Mannerist artists with marvelous vehicles to depict these themes, and Goltzius's 1587 engraving of The Wedding of Cupid and Psyche, based on a drawing by Bartolomeus Spranger, was one of the most influential early works of this type (fig. 1). In it more than 80 figures are arranged in a celestial banquet set among the clouds. Wtewael himself painted at least nine similar banquets, as it was one of his most favored subjects: the present work and eight versions of The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis.2 Five of the extant versions of Peleus are on copper and two are on panel. The earliest version, in Munich3 is roughly the same size as the present work, but the composition appears uncomfortably crowded and it is executed largely in monochrome. The next, dated 1602, is a larger work in Braunschweig,4 that owes a great deal to the engraving by Goltzius. Like the print, it is set in the clouds, which are the organizing vehicle of the composition.
The present work, which follows next chronologically and precedes the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis of 1612 in Williamstown,5 is the among the most elegant and satisfying of the entire group.6 The painting is divided into three fields: the large figures in the foreground near a large birch tree, the smaller figures at the banquet table, and a variety of goddesses and putti in the clouds above. The individual figures gather into small distinct groups but their attributes and gestures create a rhythm that carries across the composition, thereby tying these groups together. For example, while Cupid watches Mars and Venus, his arrow points up to the amorous couple to the right of the tree; similarly Minerva stands with Hercules in the middle ground at the left, and her spear links them to Bacchus below and the serving table above. The ultra-refined figures, most at least partly undressed, clearly show Wtewael's skill in depicting the human form and his remarkable inventiveness, as no pose is repeated. He uses vivid colors both as accents and to pull the different complex elements together. We witness this perhaps most clearly in the deep blue garments that carry across the foreground groups, then back to the couple by the tree, across to Minerva and further back to the standing servant's hat.
Karel van Mander praised Wtewael both for his refinement and his versatility. In a tantalizing paragraph in his life of the artist of 1604, he refers to a picture that has been linked with this work and also with early versions of The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. He lauds it for its beauty and identifies its as belonging to Jean Nicquet or his son, merchants and collectors in Amsterdam, but he gives very few visual details about the composition: One comes across many small pieces of excellent precision and neatness by him: firstly in Amsterdam with Mr Joan Ycket, or his son, there is an outstanding small piece on copper by him, a Banquet of the gods, full of detail and very subtly and carefully executed.7 While we cannot be certain if it is this or another banqueting scene that Van Mander is referring to, his characterization of the work in question – its style and quality – is consonant with what we see in this Banquet of the Gods.
1. See Kloek, in Literature.
2. Lowenthal lists six extant versions of the subject and a seventh whose current whereabouts were unknown, cat. nos. A-4, A-20, A-49, A-50, A-53, A-81 and C-50. See Literature. An eighth version is in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Mass.
3. See Lowenthal, in Literature, pp. 82-83, cat. no. A-4, reproduced plate 5.
4. See ibid., pp. 100-101, cat. no. A-20, reproduced plate 31.
5. See A. Wheelock, in Literature, pp. 143-145, cat. no. 31, reproduced.
6. Lowenthal dates the present work to 1601-09, while Kloek suggests a date of c.1605. See Literature.
7. H. Miedema, ed., Karel van Mander. The lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, Doornspijk 1994, vol. I, p. 445.
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