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.
A white cow, once a mortal woman named Io, emerges from the shadows at the edge of this picture (its face is somewhat reduced as the work has been trimmed slightly on all sides). Io’s misfortune at having caught the eye of Jupiter is told by the Roman poet Ovid in the Metamorphoses. Wishing to protect her from the wrath of Juno, his jealous wife, Jupiter transformed Io into a cow. The plan backfired when Juno took an interest in the animal and decided to claim it for herself, setting Argus Panoptes (meaning ‘many-eyed’ Argus) to guard it.
Now trapped, Io was condemned to live as a cow until Jupiter intervened, sending his son Mercury to kill Argus and free her. Mercury first had to send the guard to sleep. Disguised as a shepherd – he had stolen some sheep along the way – he began to play his reed pipe to the old man, who was captivated by the sound, until he ’saw that every eye had succumbed and their light was lost in sleep‘. With his curved sword, Mercury swiftly cut off Argus’ many-eyed head.
Loth’s painting depicts the calm moment before Argus‘ sudden and violent murder. According to Ovid, Mercury had abandoned his usual costume of a winged hat and sandals, but Loth has shown him wearing a cap with a short wing just visible above his ear, letting the viewer in on the trickery. Perhaps he preferred to do this than to paint Argus with more than two eyes.
This is one of the earliest works Loth made in Venice, where he arrived in 1656. Strong contrasts of light and darkness imbue the scene with a mysterious and sinister air, which suits the subject. The limited but bright areas of light are reserved for the figures’ faces and hands, and for Mercury’s muscular arm – it has the quality of a classical sculpture, which Loth would no doubt have seen during his time in Rome in 1653. While there he would also have seen works by the early seventeenth-century painter Caravaggio, who developed this style of painting contrasting areas of intense light and deep shade, which was known as tenebrism.
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