This delightful painting by Jean-François de Troy, one of the leading painters in Paris in the first half of the 18th century, portrays the climactic moment from Ovid's story in Metamorphoses—the Abduction of Europa. Jupiter has transformed himself into a handsome bull to lure the lovely princess Europa onto his back and carry her away to Crete where she would bear him three sons. From Rembrandt to Claude Lorrain to Paul Gauguin, this seminal story captured the imagination of European artists for centuries.
Painted in rich colors with the light, refined brush characteristic of the works of de Troy's fellow members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, Antoine Watteau and FranÃ\u0083Â§ois Boucher, this painting offers a classical mythological subject in a rococo style that gracefully compliments the National Gallery's collection. De Troy studied with his father, François de Troy, professor and then director of the Académie. In 1699, he traveled to Italy, spending most of his time in Rome copying the masterpieces of antiquity and Italian art. He returned to Paris in 1706, and two years later became a full-fledged member of the Académie. A prodigiously talented painter, he completed ambitious decorations in churches, palaces, and public buildings in Paris, Versailles, Fontainebleau, and Marseilles. In 1738, he was granted the prestigious post of director of the Académie de France in Rome, a position he retained until his death. Although he was officially a history painter, he worked successfully across genres, inventing what are known as tableaux de modes to rival and succeed Watteau's more mysterious and ambiguous fêtes galantes.
The present painting may have been inspired by what is perhaps the most famous iteration of the theme, Titian's Europa, 1560–1562 (Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, Boston). The latter work was given by Philip V, king of Spain, to the French ambassador, the duc de Gramont, in 1704. Titian's painting subsequently passed into the possession of the duc d'Orléans, with whose collection, on permanent display at the Palais Royal in Paris, de Troy was thoroughly conversant. Smaller in scale and less tragic in tone, de Troy's painting illustrates the same moment in the story and displays a similarly lush palette and dramatic drapery. The probable pendant to The Abduction of Europa, a representation of Cupid and Psyche, is signed and dated 1716, thus placing our picture within a period early in the artist's career during which he specialized in cabinet-sized pictures of erotically charged mythological subjects.