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Salvator Rosa, Landscape with Mercury and the Dishonest Woodsman

Key facts
Full title Landscape with Mercury and the Dishonest Woodsman
Artist Salvator Rosa
Artist dates 1615 - 1673
Date made about 1663
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 125.7 × 202.1 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1837
Inventory number NG84
Location On loan: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, Chimei Museum, Tainan City, Taiwan
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
Landscape with Mercury and the Dishonest Woodsman
Salvator Rosa

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.

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