The story of the honest woodsman – the subject of Rosa’s painting – is taken from Aesop’s Fables, a collection of moral tales from ancient Greece. In the story, the god Mercury takes pity on a woodsman who has accidentally dropped his axe into a river. He retrieves two axes from the water, one gold and one silver; the honest woodsman claims neither as his own, so Mercury gives him both as a reward, as well as his original axe. On hearing this, a dishonest woodsman swears that he too has dropped a tool in the water. Rosa’s painting shows Mercury emerging from the river holding a golden axe, and the woodsman dashing forwards to claim it. The god denied him the axe.
This painting was commissioned in around 1663 by Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna, a major art collector in Rome. During the 1660s, Rosa’s landscapes became increasingly dramatic, with windswept trees, rushing torrents of water and stormy clouds. His paintings of this period are among his most powerfully inventive works.
The subject of Rosa’s painting – the story of the honest woodsman – is extremely uncommon in European art. It is taken from Aesop’s Fables, a collection of ancient Greek tales with moral lessons. In the story, the god Mercury takes pity on a woodsman who has accidentally dropped his axe into a river. He retrieves two axes from the water, one gold and one silver; the woodsman claims neither as his own and, as a reward for his honesty, Mercury gives him both, along with the original axe. On hearing this a dishonest woodsman threw his own tool in the river and pretended that it was made of precious metal. Rosa’s painting shows Mercury in his winged helmet emerging from the water holding a golden axe, and the woodsman dashing forwards to claim it. The god, disgusted by the man’s dishonesty, denied him the axe.
Like many themes selected by Rosa, this one has a strong moral message: the virtue of honesty, even at the price of self interest. Rosa was familiar with many of Aesop’s stories; he included references to the author’s work in his satirical poetry, and a volume by Aesop is depicted in his painting Moral Philosophy (private collection). Rosa became increasingly interested in classical philosophy through the group of intellectuals he befriended in Rome during the 1650s and 1660s. He longed to be accepted as a painter of philosophical subjects and greatly resented his reputation as a specialist in landscape and genre scenes. But his dark and awe-inspiring late landscapes, like this one, are among his most powerfully inventive works.
During the 1660s, Rosa’s style became increasingly dramatic and turbulent, characterised by stormy clouds, rushing torrents of water and windswept trees that loom threateningly over small figures. In contrast to Rosa’s earlier landscapes, which took inspiration from the balanced and harmonious work of Claude and Nicholas Poussin, his contemporaries in Rome, this untamed and hostile scene is theatrical and dynamic. The figures seem tiny and insubstantial beneath the dark, voluminous clouds and masses of dense foliage.
This picture was commissioned around 1663 by Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna, a major collector of landscape painting in Rome. In the dramatic posing of the figures and the contrast between the dark foreground and blue distant mountains, there are similarities with the late works of Dughet, such as Landscape with Elijah and the Angel, which also entered Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna’s collection during the early 1660s. Rosa’s painting – for which his patron supposedly sent a blank cheque, allowing the artist to name his price – was, unusually, paired with a biblical work, The Finding of Moses (Detroit Institute of Arts).
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