AMAM Masterpiece Spotlight: Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Finding of Erichthonius”
The subject of this work by Rubens comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: the daughters of Cecrops, the King of Attica, had been entrusted by Athena with a basket they were explicitly told not to open. It contained the baby Erichthonius, son of Vulcan and Gaia, whose legs were in the form of snakes. Naturally, they opened the basket (the youngest daughter, Aglauros, is seen in this act in the AMAM painting), where, to their shock, they found the deformed child. According to some accounts, they were so horrified at the sight, they threw themselves from the heights of the Athenian Acropolis. Art historian Julius Held, however, noted that in the Oberlin painting, Ovid’s version of the tale is depicted, as no harm comes to the daughters and as a landscape-not the rocky outcropping of the Acropolis-is seen in the background.
The AMAM canvas is a fragment of the complete work, whose composition can be deduced through preliminary sketches, prints, and a number of copies. The complete painting was in the collection of the Duc de Richelieu in 1676, but by 1786 when it appeared in an auction as “a female gardener,” it had been significantly cut down, and overpainted: Erichthonius had been covered over by blossoms, so that the entire composition looked like a young girl with a basket of flowers; the various limbs of her sisters, seen in the AMAM work, had also been overpainted. In 1939, the Rubens scholar Ludwig Burchard recognized the composition from a Rubens print, and suggested cleaning the work, after which the original composition was discovered.
The painting is from the last decade of Rubens’s life, and displays the brilliant coloration, sheen of silks and satins, and free handling for which he is known. Rubens was the foremost Flemish artist of the seventeenth century, and was widely known throughout Europe for his inspired compositions and sumptuous coloring. He ran a large studio and served as painter to the Duke of Mantua, the Spanish and French courts, the Habsburgs, and a vast array of other notables, often serving both as artist and diplomat.
The AMAM collection contains a print after the painting by the Flemish artist Pieter van Sompel, as well as two drawings by Rubens, showing The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine and the Head of an Old Man.