In this blog series our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.
Today we will be looking at the theme of Mythology. From François Lemoyne's Perseus and Andromeda to Van Dyck's Paris, explore below how different pieces from Hertford House have been inspired by mythology and the stories of Roman poet, Ovid.
Alessandro Algardi, Jupiter victorious over the Titans: ‘Fire’ and Juno controlling the Winds: ‘Air’, c. 1655 -1681
Recalling the mythological stories of the power of the gods, Algardi’s models depict Jupiter’s defeat of the Titans and Juno’s pacifying of the Winds. With a thunderbolt in his hand, Jupiter sits astride an eagle, dominating a conquered world, the weight of which presses down on the rocks crushing the vanquished Titans below. Juno is seated on her symbolic animal, the peacock, while the shoulders of the Winds support a similar sphere and heavy rocks.
Originally designed as firedogs for Philip IV of Spain, apparently commissioned by Velazquez who met Algardi in Rome, the model was acclaimed in France and cast in several versions. This pair can be traced back to the collection of the Grand Dauphin, and entered the French royal collection in 1711. They were sold after the Revolution.
François Lemoyne, Perseus and Andromeda, 1723
As recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (IV, 663–752), the Ethiopian princess Andromeda was offered up to appease the wrath of the gods after her mother rashly boasted that she and her daughter were more beautiful than the nymphs of the sea. The hero Perseus, flying overhead saw Andromeda chained to a rock below, helplessly awaiting the sea-monster sent to devour her. An epic fight ensued but Perseus ultimately succeeded in slaying the monster and saving the princess, whom he later married.
Like another rendition of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda also in the Wallace Collection, this work by First Painter to Louis XV depicts the sea battle. Lemoyne’s composition appears to be set at a slightly earlier moment, just as the monster has taken stock of Perseus’s presence and it includes a group of onlookers gathered on the far shore to watch the action unfolding. Titian’s version is better known today but it is worth bearing in mind that Lemoyne’s painting, which was placed twice on public exhibition (1723 and 1725), was widely acclaimed in the artist’s own lifetime.
North Italy, Parade shield, c. 1570
The Italian Renaissance witnessed a rediscovery of the cultures, arts and customs of ancient civilisations. For rulers and princes, this included a fascination with the triumphs of the Roman Empire, where victories of great military leaders were commemorated with public parades and celebrations. Shields such as this one, made in northern Italy around 1570, were parade shields and were not usually intended for combat but for display.
Often, they were decorated with classical imagery representing feats of heroism, and in this case the exploits of Hercules are depicted in heavily embossed and chased decoration. The shield is further encrusted with silver and damascened in gold. The centre of the shield shows Hercules’ second labour, the slaying of the Lernæan Hydra, whilst the border is embossed with military trophies and other stories from his life, including an attack on the centaurs, killing the Nemæan Lion and shouldering the globe for Atlas.
Sèvres, Garniture of three vases and covers, 1781
The story depicted at the centre of this three-vase garniture is that of Pygmalion and Galatea, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Pygmalion was secretly in love with his creation, the beautiful sculpture Galatea. Here, the sculptor marvels at seeing the statue come to life through the divine intervention of Venus, alluded to by the presence of three putti carrying a flaming torch, a bow and an arrow. The Sèvres painter, possibly Charles-Eloi Asselin, has taken the composition after a painting by Boucher.
Representations of Spring and Autumn after paintings by Eisen appear on the smaller vases. To the left, two cherubs offer Primavera (or Flora) a basket of roses as she sits by a stream symbolizing the reawakening of Nature after its dormant state of winter. Bacchus, accompanied by two small satyrs, is crowned by vine leaves and covered by a leopard skin that alludes to his role as protector of wild partying associated with drinking. He lives among ripening grapevines and shelters under an improvised cloth canopy that casts a shadow over his head, masterfully depicted by the artist.
Adam Weisweiler, Pair of cabinets, c. 1780
Weisweiler, a German-born cabinetmaker working in Paris, created this pair of cabinets in around 1780, a time associated with the neoclassical style in France. This was spurred on by an interest in the classical arts, architecture and mythology, which is here reflected in the cabinets. Fitted with beautiful gilt-bronze mounts, the reliefs represent Roman mythological figures. The mount on the door of one represents Autumn, in the form of Bacchus, the god of feasting and wine. He holds a jug of wine in his right hand and a cup in his left, whilst behind him is a tree around which grape vines trail. In contrast, the mount on the door of the other cabinet represents Hiems, the personification of Winter. He is shown as an elderly man, hunched over a walking stick, warming himself next to a tripod brazier. The sides of both cabinets are fitted with masks of Apollo, the god of art and music.
Anthony van Dyck, Paris, c. 1628
Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, was asked to award a golden apple to the goddess he considered the most beautiful. Faced with a choice between Athena, the fierce goddess of wisdom, Hera, the stately queen of the gods, and Aphrodite, the seductive goddess of love, he chose the latter. In return, Aphrodite promised Paris marriage to the most beautiful woman in the world. This was Helen of Sparta, with whom Paris promptly eloped although she was already married to the Menelaus, king of Sparta. Thus began the devastating Trojan War which lasted ten years, ending only with the destruction of Paris’s native Troy and his own demise at the hands of Greek hero Philoctetes.
In Paris, Van Dyck has distilled the entire sweeping narrative into a single decisive moment. Paris is shown right at the outset of his story, at the very moment of his fateful choice. The golden apple, as yet unbestowed, gleams in his right hand; his left hovers hesitatingly at his chest. He turns sideways, seeming almost confused by the three goddesses before him. One imagines them before him, each advocating hard for his vote. Perhaps we are meant to wonder what might have happened had Paris’s choice fallen upon Athena or Hera — knowing all the while that he will opt for Aphrodite and, in the process, seal his fate.
Attributed to Léonard Limosin, Dish showing the Triumph of Galatea, c. 1560
In his Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid tells the story of Galatea, a Sicilian sea-nymph. She was the most beautiful of the nymphs and attracted the attention of the cyclops Polyphemus. However, she had fallen deeply in love with a shepherd, Acis. Overcome with jealousy and rage, Polyphemus threw a boulder at the shepherd, killing him. Later, Galatea transformed Acis’ blood and spirit into a river. This tragic story is portrayed in splendid detail on this enamel dish, which was probably made by Léonard Limosin or Pierre Pénicaud, around 1560. The arrangement of the figures on the dish derives from a fresco painted by Raphael at the Villa Farnesina in 1511-12.