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Johann Carl Loth, Mercury piping to Argus

Key facts
Full title Mercury piping to Argus
Artist Johann Carl Loth
Artist dates 1632 - 1698
Date made 1655-60
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 116.9 × 99.7 cm
Acquisition credit Presented by A.G.H. Ward, through the Art Fund, 1920
Inventory number NG3571
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Mercury piping to Argus
Johann Carl Loth

A white cow, once a mortal woman named Io, emerges from the shadows at the edge of this picture. Io had caught the eye of the god Jupiter, and he had transformed her in order to protect her from the wrath of his wife Juno. The plan backfired when Juno decided to claim the animal for herself, setting Argus to guard it. To save Io from spending her life as a cow, Jupiter sent Mercury to kill Argus. Here, disguised as a shepherd, Mercury plays a pipe to soothe the guard to sleep – viewers would have known that he was about to bring his sword down on Argus' neck.

This is one of the earliest works Loth made in Venice, where he arrived in 1656, but it shows the influence of his time in Rome in 1653. While there he where would have seen the pictures of the early seventeenth-century painter Caravaggio, who developed this style of painting using extreme contrasts of light and darkness.

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