Old Master Paintings

Baroque Visions of Ancient Heroes: Hercules and Atalanta

NEW YORK, NY -- Humanist scholars of the Renaissance were enthralled with Greek and Roman Antiquity, a fascination that continued among well-educated people through the Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassic eras well into the 20th century. This devotion to the Classical past naturally influenced the visual arts of all of these periods. Starting in the 15th century, we begin to see paintings of incidents from Greek and Roman history and mythology, usually offered to exemplify moral principles. The mythological hero Hercules, for example, appeared in paintings of the Renaissance as a personification of virtue, shown either performing his famous feats of strength or as a young man at a crossroads choosing a life of difficult moral struggle over one of ease and self-indulgence.

By the Baroque period, however, images of Hercules more often illustrated other moments in his life. For example, a drawing attributed to the 17th-century Italian artist Luigi Scaramuccia shows Jupiter welcoming Hercules to Olympus, after the hero had been granted immortality as a reward for his valorous life (Lot 43). It is interesting to see how Christian religious subject matter has influenced this composition. If Jupiter were not accompanied by his eagle we could easily take him to be God the Father; and if Hercules were not shown with his distinctive olive-wood club he could be a Christian saint welcomed to heaven for unshakable faith.

One of the most popular incidents from the life of Hercules in the 17th and 18th centuries was the tale of Hercules and Omphale. According to numerous Greek and Roman sources, in order to expiate the inadvertent murder of a friend, Hercules was commanded by an oracle to serve Queen Omphale of Lydia, a kingdom in Asia Minor, for one year. Once at her court, the invincible hero was required to dress as a woman and to do various household chores. Later, however, Hercules and Omphale became lovers, married, and had a son. In the ancient world this extraordinary account was accepted as historic fact; until the destruction of the Lydian kingdom by Cyrus of Persia in 546 B.C., the kings of Lydia claimed Hercules as their ancestor.

Depending on the point of view of the patron, the gender-bending possibilities of this story could be moralizing, humorous or erotic. One version of the subject, by a Flemish artist of the mid-17th century (Lot 60) shows Hercules meekly spinning thread with a distaff and drop spindle while the beautiful Omphale has put on his lion skin cloak and leans on his club. He is wearing one of her bejeweled sandals and little else. Here is the first part of the story: Hercules gamely taking his punishment as he agreed to in order to redeem himself. But as this handsome, cross-dressing couple gaze at one another, we can see Cupid with his bow hovering on the right, while a wingless love-spirit tugs at Omphale’s borrowed headgear and another unlatches Hercules’s remaining sandal. The massive four-poster bed in the background clearly shows us where this delicious narrative is headed.

The incongruity of beautiful ladies in men’s attire or following men’s pursuits was clearly an attraction to writers and artists in both the ancient world and Baroque Europe. We read of the goddess Athena as a warrior and her sister Artemis as a huntress, not to mention various Amazons fighting at Troy and in the wars of Theseus. The most commonly depicted of these heroic beauties was Atalanta, a Greek princess abandoned as a baby and raised by a she-bear. Later she was befriended by a group of hunters, who taught her to use a spear, bow and arrows. She became famous for her skill, and even took part in the Calydonian Boar Hunt, one of the great pan-Hellenic expeditions of the Bronze Age. An image from the Baroque period by an unidentified 17th-century Italian artist shows her on another legendary hunt (Lot 64). Here Atalanta, who was renowned for her swiftness of foot, runs easily alongside a galloping horseman in pursuit of a stag, leaving the rest of their party behind. She seems to be the one in charge, directing the thrust of her companion’s spear. Strangely, he is dressed as a Roman soldier, an anachronism of which the artist was perhaps unaware. One charming detail emerges from a sac created by the tying of Atalanta’s cloak, just above her left hip: the bell of a small hunting horn.

In these Baroque pictures the high-minded Renaissance world of moralizing allegory and emblems of virtue has been left far behind. Feats of strength and skill, children raised by wild animals, oracles sending heroes on quests, passionate love affairs, the founding of royal dynasties—these are simply wonderful stories, full of strangeness, excitement and drama, to be enjoyed just as we enjoy a good novel today.

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Portrait of specialist Elaine Banks Stainton
Senior Specialist, Paintings & Drawings
Old Master Paintings
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