Europa was the daughter of Agenor, King of Tyre. Zeus fell in love with her and transformed himself into a docile bull in order to abduct her from the shore where she was playing. She climbed on his back and they swam away to Crete. She bore him three sons, Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon.
The myth, with its dark erotic undertones, was one of the most popular classical subjects for 17th-century paintings, although the inclusion of Cupid makes this example rather unusual. Europa is shown at the moment when her disquiet at being abducted begins to turn to love.
The painting was made for King Wladislaw of Poland, shortly before 1640, and its luminous tonality, studied elegance and strong pale colouring are typical of Reni's late style.