This appears to depict a moment of bliss: an idyllic landscape, painted in an Italianate style by Jan Both, is suffused with the warm glow of a summer’s evening. In the foreground a group of elegantly poised nudes, added by Both’s collaborator Cornelis van Poelenburgh, catches the sunlight.
But this is no idyll, and we are witnessing a tragic turning point in mythological history: the Judgement of Paris. Jupiter has asked Paris to judge which of three goddesses – Juno, Minerva and Venus – is the most beautiful. Paris chooses Venus by handing her a golden apple. As a reward she promises him Helen, the beautiful wife of a Greek king. Helen’s abduction leads to the Trojan wars and the destruction of Troy.
Van Poelenburgh and Both had studied in Italy before they returned to Utrecht and were part of a group of Dutch artists who created a taste among their patrons for Italianate landscape painting.
There’s a terrible irony at the heart of this painting which was made not by a single artist but by two working together. It appears to depict a moment of bliss: an idyllic landscape, painted by Jan Both, is suffused with the warm glow of a summer’s evening. On one side, goats rest peacefully among the trees, supervised by a watchful dog, while on the other two water nymphs quietly play in the shallows next to a river god. In the foreground, a group of elegantly poised nudes, added by Both’s collaborator Cornelis van Poelenburgh, catches the sunlight streaming through the riverside glade.
But this is not a moment of peace and harmony. We are witnessing a tragic turning point in mythological history: the Judgement of Paris. There are several versions of this in classical literature, but the one used here seems to have been drawn from Ovid’s Latin poem Ars amatoria (‘The Art of Love’). Ovid recounts that the god Jupiter asks a shepherd called Paris to judge which of three goddesses – Juno (Jupiter’s wife), Minerva (goddess of wisdom) and Venus (goddess of love) – is the most beautiful. Each goddess attempts to bribe him. Juno offers power, Minerva wisdom, while Venus promises him the love of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world (even though Paris is already married to a mountain nymph called Oenone).
We see Paris as he makes his fateful decision, handing Venus a golden apple which has been inscribed ‘to the fairest’. While she steps forward to accept her prize, her consort Cupid peeps out from under her robe. But the reaction of the other goddesses is telling. To the left, Minerva turns to catch our eye, while Juno seems to be raising her hand in alarm. They perhaps sense the tragic consequences of Paris’s choice. They know that he will soon discover that he is not just a simple shepherd but the abandoned son of Priam, King of Troy. When Helen, who is already married to a Greek king, is abducted by Paris with the help of Venus, it leads to the Trojan War and the destruction of Troy. Meanwhile, the shadowy woman in the background of the painting must be Oenone, turning anxiously to her father, who was a river god.
Van Poelenburgh’s reference for the group of figures was a well-known engraving designed over 100 years earlier by Raphael, but he has adapted it to emphasise the drama of the moment – and perhaps the moral lesson implied. The fateful consequences of Paris’s preference for love over power and wealth are unlikely to have been lost on seventeenth-century Dutch viewers, who were benefitting from the fast-growing prosperity of a society built on commerce and trade. But no doubt they would also have appreciated the subject as an opportunity to enjoy the sensuality of the naked figures and the exoticism of the mountain landscape which frames them. Both van Poelenburgh and Both had studied in Italy before they returned to their hometown of Utrecht and were part of a group of Dutch artists who created a taste among their patrons for Italianate landscape painting.
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