This painting depicts a legendary moment recounted by the ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Plutarch: Solon, an Athenian philosopher and lawmaker, disputes with Croesus, King of Lydia, on the subject of happiness.
We see Solon approach Croesus as he passes through the ruler’s palace at Sardis, the Lydian capital. Croesus, who was famously wealthy, asked the philosopher to name the happiest man in the world, believing it to be himself. He was disappointed to hear Solon answer that three men had been happier than he. Solon argued that, contrary to Croesus’ belief, human happiness is dependent not on wealth but on the good fortune of a person’s life overall.
This detailed painting was made by two artists working in collaboration: the impressive interiors are by the architectural specialist Hendrick Steenwyck the Younger, while the figures and flowers are by an unknown artist working in the style of Jan Brueghel the Elder.
Croesus, who was famously wealthy, asked Solon to tell him who was the happiest man in the world, believing it to be himself. He was disappointed to hear Solon’s response that three men had been happier than he: Tellus, an Athenian statesman, who had a good life and died fighting for Athens in a war against the neighbouring Eleusinians; and the brothers Kleobis and Biton, who pulled their mother to a festival in an ox-cart and, following her grateful prayer for their happiness, died in their sleep. Solon’s message was that, contrary to Croesus’ belief, human happiness is dependent not on wealth but on the good fortune of a person’s life overall.
Part of a signature can be made out on the picture: ‘TEENW.. K[?]’. This, combined with the subject, point to the specialist painter of church interiors and architectural scenes Hendrick Steenwyck the Younger. But a second artistic style is present in the figures and flowers, suggesting that Steenwyck worked in collaboration with another person. This hand is in the style of Jan Brueghel the Elder, who painted flowers and small-scale landscapes and figures, and frequently collaborated with other artists, including Peter Paul Rubens.
The artists have chosen to depict the moment Solon approaches Croesus as he passes through his palace at Sardis, the Lydian capital. The encounter of the two men, watched by two young boys, is on a raised platform and framed by arches and columns, as if a stage set. Croesus' wealth is emphasised by the grand architecture that dwarfs the figures and by the ostentatious display of riches on every surface: gold plate, porcelain, an elaborate flower display, books, celestial globes and even an exotic parrot.
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