Our large painting breaths the spirit of the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, the international capital of Northern Mannerism. Its composition goes largely back to an engraving by Hendrick Goltzius (today in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam) made after his own drawing (today at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York). Rudolf II owned a small painting on marble by Bartholomeus Spranger (today at the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna), which copied the left half of the same engraving.
The subject is one of the 250 myths written down in the “Metamorphoses” by Ovid in Rome in the year 8 AD. Apollo, god of the sun and of music, was challenged to a musical contest by the minor, rural god of the woods, Pan. The umpire, Tmolus, declared Apollo the victor. But Midas disagreed and Apollo punished him with donkey’s ears for his poor judgement. The young women represent the nine Muses and Pallas Athena.
About Hendrick Goltzius
Important Dutch draughtsman, printmaker, print publisher and painter.
Mülbracht 1558 – 1617 Haarlem.
Goltzius was born near Venlo in Bracht or Millebrecht, a village then in the Duchy of Julich, now in the municipality Brüggen in North Rhine-Westphalia. His family moved to Duisburg when he was 3 years old. After studying painting on glass for some years under his father, he learned engraving from the Dutchman Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert, who then lived in Cleves. In 1577 he moved with Coornhert to Haarlem.
Goltzius had a malformed right hand, from a fire when he was a baby, which turned out to be especially well-suited to holding the burin. He was internationally well known for his sophisticated technique of engraving and for the exuberance of his compositions. The Teylers Museum of Haarlem holds a drawing from 1588 that Goltzius made of this right hand.
In Haarlem, 15 km W of Amsterdam, Goltzius, Karel van Mander and Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem introduced the complex compositions and the exaggerated twisted figures of Italian Mannerism in Dutch art.
At the age of 21 Goltzius had married a rich, elder widow. Their unpleasant relationship forced him in 1590 to travel through Germany to Italy, where he admired Michelangelo. After his return by the end of 1591 he developed a more classicizing style. Still later his art reflected a growing interest in naturalism.
Goltzius began painting around 1600, at the age of 42; he more or less gave up engraving at that stage. He passed away in 1617.
About the subject of our painting
At the centre of our composition stands Apollo, the Greek (and Roman) god of the sun, of music, poetry and of prophecy. He was audaciously challenged to a music contest by Pan, a minor, rural god of nature, half man – half goat, standing at the extreme right side. Apollo played on a lyre (here a viola), Pan blew his pipes (here a single flute).
In front of Apollo sits the old mountain god Tmolus, who was the umpire of the contest. He decided that Apollo was the winner.
Between Tmolus and Pan stands Midas, King of Phrygia. He alone disagreed with Tmolus’ decision and said that Pan should have been the winner. Apollo was furious at Midas and turned his ears into those of a donkey, as a sign of his foolishness.
The ten young women represent the nine Muses and Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, with a small owl flying above her. Apollo was the leader of the Muses, who were goddess of literature, science and arts:
- the Muse sitting in the right foreground is Erato (Muse of love poetry and lyric poetry), holding a globe and a compass;
- the two Muses sitting left of her are Terpsichore (Muse of dance) holding her lyra and Thalia (Muse of comedy and pastoral poetry), whose marotte is missing in our painting;
- the two Muses standing at left are Urania (Muse of astronomy), whose planetarium is also missing in our painting and Euterpe (Muse of flutes and music) holding her flute;
- in the background, next to Pallas Athena, stands Clio (Muse of history) holding a book;
- finally in the group of three Muses standing behind Apollo one recognizes Calliope (Muse of epic poetry) holding a parchment scroll, Polymnia (Muse of sacred poetry) with a snake staff and Melpomene (Muse of tragedy) in between them.
This Greek myth was also told in the Metamorphoses of the famous Roman poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BC – 18 AD), a compilation of 250 myths written in Latin verses. These were translated in Dutch and published in 1604 by Karel van Mander (1548 – 1606), a Flemish-born Dutch painter, writer and art theoretician. This translation was part of van Mander’s famous “Book of Painting” (“Schilder-Boeck”). That book was a compilation of three books: a translation of the “Lives” of Vasari, a similar collection of lives of Dutch, Flemish and German painters, and finally a translation of The Metamorphoses, that was followed by a guide explaining the figures. Van Mander died already two years after the publication of his “Schilder-Boeck”, which became very influential. In 1618 a second edition was published. His version of the Metamorphoses became so popular that it was sold as a separate book.
About our painting
Our anonymous painter has copied the composition from an engraving by Hendrick Goltzius, dating from 1590, today at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. For that engraving Goltzius has copied in reverse a drawing by himself, today at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.
Our painter has simplified the intricate arrangement by simplifying the landscape, dropping the clouds, two emblems of the Muses at left (the armillary sphere globe and the marotte) and the second young satyr sitting at the top of the tree in the upper right corner.
Bartholomeus Spranger had apparently circa 1591/1593 already copied the left half of the same engraving in a small oil painting on marble. That painting (erroneously described as on copper) was probably already recorded in the Kunstkammer inventory of the Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, circa 1610/1619.
Our unidentified painter might also have been active at the start of the 17th century in the international Mannerist centre of Prague.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is a marvelous ode to Graeco-Roman culture and to music.