With his radiant, porcelain skin and fluttering, red cloak, Apollo, the god of music, gestures to Midas, the king of Phyrigia. Midas, with donkey's ears, sits beside Pan, the wild god of shepherds and flocks, who blows on his reed pipes. A small man with legs and horns of a goat, Pan mischievously looks out at the viewer while being observed by a pair of fleshy nymphs and a group of bearded men. The intent look on the figures' faces, particularly that of the man with the laurel crown, suggests a moment of consequence.
The painting depicts a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses about a musical contest between Apollo and Pan, conflating the entire narrative into one scene. Pan audaciously challenged the god of music to the competition and blew a rustic melody on his pipes that delighted King Midas. Then, Apollo played his lyre so beautifully that the mountain god, Timolus, who judged the contest, pictured here holding a staff, declared Apollo the victor. Midas disagreed and Apollo gave Midas a donkey's ears for his "poor" judgment. In the Gallery's painting, Pan is shown playing his flute, which indicates the contest has only begun, yet Midas already has donkey ears.
This painting came to the National Gallery of Art from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where it was once attributed to Peter Paul Rubens, partly because the figures of Apollo and the nymphs appear in other compositions by the Flemish master. However, the heavy outlining around Apollo and the blond nymph, and the brushwork resemble that of Rubens's student, Jan van den Hoecke.
Van den Hoecke was a prominent member of Rubens's studio by in the 1630s. After Rubens's death in 1640, Van den Hoecke painted a number of similarly scaled mythological scenes for which he often borrowed figures from Rubens compositions. Van den Hoecke's style is characterized by slightly angular drapery folds; large, slanted eyes; small, pointed noses; and curly-haired, slightly exaggerated heads, as seen in Apollo, Pan, and their crowd of onlookers.
Possibly Sir John Rushout, 2nd baron Northwick [1770-1859]. Otto Mündler [1811-1870], until 1863. Emile [1800-1875] and Isaac [1806-1880] Péreire, Paris; (Péreire sale, at their residence by Pillet and Petis, Paris, 6-9 March 1872, no. 148, as Apollo et Midas). Edwards, Paris. C.G. Candano, Paris; purchased 1899 by William A. Clark [1839-1925], New York; bequest 1926 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2015 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Loan Exhibition. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art: A Benefit Exhibition in Honor of the Gallery's Centenary, Wildenstein, New York, 28 January - 7 March 1959, unnumbered catalogue, as Peter Paul Rubens.
- Antiquities to Impressionism: The William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2001-2002, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Rooses, Max. L'Oeuvre de P.P. Rubens: histoire et description de ses tabelaux et dessins. 5 vols. Antwerp, 1896-1892: 4(1890):124, no. 646.
- Carroll, Dana H. Catalogue of Objects of Fine Art and Other Properties at the Home of William Andrews Clark, 962 Fifth Avenue. Part I. Unpublished manuscript, n.d. (1925): 136, no. 79.
- Goris, Jan-Albert and Julius S. Held. Rubens in America. New York, 1947: 54, no. A38, as by a Follower of Rubens.
- Breckenridge, James D. A handbook of Dutch and Flemish paintings in the William Andrews Clark collection. Washington, 1955: 40 repro., 41, as by Rubens.