This painting depicts the mythological story of Europa, daughter of the King of Tyre, who, while playing on the seashore one day, was approached by a docile bull. Draping a flower garland on its horns, Europa unsuspectingly climbed onto its back. The bull, who was in fact the god Jupiter in disguise, carried her off to Crete. We see the moment of her abduction, just before her alarm turns to love.
Guido Reni’s biographer, Carlo Cesare Malvasia, cites three versions of the Rape of Europa painted by Reni for great personages; this work has been identified as the one delivered to King Wladislaw of Poland shortly before 1640. Its luminous tonality and cool, pale colouring are in keeping with the artist’s late style, supporting the theory that it was made around 1640. During this period of his career, Reni’s palette became notably lighter. He rendered figures in broad strokes of pale opaque colour, giving careful attention to the statuesque elegance of poses and draperies.
This painting depicts the mythological story of the abduction of Europa, daughter of the King of Tyre, as recounted by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses. While playing on the seashore one day, Europa was approached by a docile bull. Draping a flower garland on its horns, she unsuspectingly climbed onto its back. The bull, who was in fact the god Jupiter in disguise, carried her off to Crete – we see the moment of her abduction here.
Guido Reni’s biographer, Carlo Cesare Malvasia, cites three versions of this theme painted by Reni for great personages: one for the Duke of Guastalla, another for Charles I, King of England, and a third for King Wladislaw of Poland. The Guastalla painting has been identified as the version now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, dated to 1636–7; the Charles I Europa is now considered lost, if in fact it ever existed. The National Gallery painting has been identified as that which, according to Malvasia, was made for the King of Poland shortly before 1640, during Reni’s final years. Early in 1640, the King wrote to Reni from Warsaw: ‘it is not possible for us to express by any means other than our letters how pleased we are with the Europa... and how great is the esteem we have of your renowned ability.’
Here, we see the moment before Europa’s alarm at being abducted turns to love. She went on to have three sons with Jupiter: Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon. Cupid is shown in the upper right with arrow primed, ready to help matters along. The myth, with its dark erotic undertones, was one of the most popular mythological subjects in painting, although the inclusion of Cupid – absent from the Ottawa composition – makes this example rather unusual. Cupid is also present in Veronese’s The Rape of Europa, though there he is more a bystander than an active participant.
The luminous tonality and cool, pale colouring of this painting are in keeping with those associated with the artist’s late style, supporting the theory that this is the work painted around 1640 for King Wladislaw. Literary sources of the time describe this period as Reni’s ultima maniera, or final manner, during which his palette became notably lighter. He rendered his figures in broad strokes of pale opaque colour, giving careful attention to the statuesque elegance of poses and draperies. During this time, according to Malvasia, Reni moved away from the ‘forced shadows’ or shadows that ‘are caused by the light that is too artificial’ (as exemplified by the chiaroscuro technique used by Caravaggio and his followers). Malvasia continues: ‘instead he used soft and pleasant shadows such as those produced by a clear and open light.’
The Rape of Europa formed part of the collection of the late Sir Denis Mahon, one of the great scholars, advocates and collectors of seventeenth-century Italian painting, campaigner for the arts, and major benefactor of the National Gallery. The painting was transferred to the National Gallery by the trustees of the Art Fund and of the Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust in 2013, along with an additional 24 works which were already on long-term loan to the Gallery.
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