After learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting in his native Leiden, Rembrandt van Rijn went to Amsterdam in 1624 to study for six months with Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), a famous history painter. Upon completion of his training Rembrandt returned to Leiden. Around 1632 he moved to Amsterdam, quickly establishing himself as the town’s leading artist. He received many commissions for portraits and attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting.
The Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses provided Dutch artists with a wide range of mythological subjects, most of which contain underlying moralizing messages on human behavior. Rembrandt here depicts the moment when Jupiter and Mercury quietly reveal themselves to the elderly couple Philemon and Baucis, as described in the eighth book of Ovid’s commentaries. Rembrandt, who was able to penetrate the essence of the myth as no artist ever had, silhouetted Mercury against the primary light source to enhance the inherent drama of the moment.
The moral of the story is that hospitality and openness to strangers are virtues that are always rewarded. As depicted by Rembrandt, the hosts Philemon and Baucis, who come to recognize that they are in the presence of gods when the food and wine keep replenishing themselves, try to catch their only goose so they can offer their divine guests better fare. Jupiter commands them not to kill the goose and blesses their sparse offering with a firm yet comforting gesture. Dressed in exotic and loosely draped robes, Jupiter dominates the scene and takes on a Christ-like appearance that strongly echoes the Christ from Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, which Rembrandt knew from a print. Leonardo’s composition had a profound impact on Rembrandt, and he used it in conceiving of a number of different subjects in prints, drawings, and paintings.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses provided Dutch artists with a wide range of mythological subjects, most of which contain underlying moralizing messages on human behavior. Surprisingly, the story of the visit of Jupiter and Mercury to the aged couple Philemon and Baucis, described by Ovid in the eighth book of his commentaries, was only rarely depicted.
See Eric Jan Sluijter, De "heydensche Fabulen" in de Noordnederlandse schilderkunst circa 1590–1670 (The Hague, 1986), 100. Gary Schwartz, Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings (New York, 1985), 323, notes that Jan Vos mentions a painting of Philemon and Baucis by “Van Zorg” in a poem published in 1662. He interprets this reference to mean Hendrick Martensz Sorgh (1611–1670).
The moral of the story, as interpreted by Karel van Mander at the beginning of the seventeenth century, is that hospitality and openness to strangers are virtues that are always rewarded.
Karel van Mander, Wtlegghingh op den Metamorphosis Pub. Ovidii Nasonis, in Karel van Mander, Het Schilder-boeck (Haarlem, 1604). For an English translation of the story of Philemon and Baucis see Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington, IN, 1958), 200–204.
Early in his career, Rembrandt had painted a number of episodes from Ovid, including the Abduction of Proserpina, now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, but the dramatic characterization of their narratives is totally different in kind from this quiet, reverent scene.
For an illustration, see Abraham Bredius, Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings, revised by Horst Gerson (London, 1969), no. 463.
Christian Tümpel, “Studien zur Ikonographie der Historien Rembrandts: Deutung und Interpretation der Bildinhalte,” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 20 (1969): 107–198.
See Kenneth Clark, Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance (New York, 1966), 6, 8.
Keith Andrews, Adam Elsheimer: Paintings—Drawings—Prints (New York, 1977), 153–154, cat. 24. The painting may also have been known to Rembrandt if, as seems possible, it was in the collection of
This phenomenon has been extensively discussed in the literature. See in particular Joseph Gantner, Rembrandt und die Verwandlung klassischer Formen (Bern, 1964); Kenneth Clark, Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance (New York, 1966); Leonardo’s “Last Supper”: Precedents and Reflections (Washington, DC, 1983), under nos. 15–20.
Ludwig Münz, A Critical Catalogue of Rembrandt’s Etchings, 2 vols. (London, 1952), 1:265, repro.
Wolfgang Stechow, “The Myth of Philemon and Baucis in Art,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 4 (January 1941): 103–113. Stechow also stresses a connection between Rembrandt’s concept and Rubens’ composition of this scene (probably known to Rembrandt through a print by Meyssens). The relationship, however, is very tenuous. See also Jakob Rosenberg, Rembrandt, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA, 1948), 1:185 (also 1964 ed., 300).
Rembrandt’s appreciation of the thematic connections between Ovid’s story and Christ at Emmaus, however, did not just develop at the end of his life.
Wolfgang Stechow, “The Myth of Philemon and Baucis in Art,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 4 (January 1941): 103, emphasizes that the story of Philemon and Baucis was easily given a Christian interpretation. The old couple epitomized Christian virtues through their gentleness and willing sacrifice of worldly possessions. The story has Eucharistic connotations because of the importance of wine in it. Finally, the story parallels a number of biblical stories in which gods reveal themselves to mortals, among them Abraham entertaining the angels, a subject depicted by Rembrandt in his memorable etching of 1656 (Adam Bartsch, Catalogue raisonné de toutes les estampes qui forment l’oeuvre de Rembrandt . . ., 2 vols. [Vienna, 1797], 1: no. 29).
Wolfgang Stechow, “The Myth of Philemon and Baucis in Art,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 4 (January 1941): 111.
As in Rembrandt’s depictions of Christ at Emmaus
This work is the only extant Philemon and Baucis painting in Rembrandt’s oeuvre. Quite possibly, however, he included this subject within the series of scenes from Ovid that Baldinucci reports he painted for a Dutch merchant/magistrate.
Seymour Slive, Rembrandt and His Critics, 1630–1730 (The Hague, 1953), 109. Filippo Baldinucci’s comments appeared in his treatise Cominciamento, e progresso dell’arte dell’intagliare in rame, colle vite di molti de’ più eccellenti Maestri della stessa Professione (Florence, 1686), 78.
Illustrated in Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt: A Critical and Chronological Catalogue, 6 vols. (London, 1954–1957), 5: no. 958, figs. 1170–1171; and 6: no. A76, fig. 1668.
Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt: A Critical and Chronological Catalogue, 6 vols. (London, 1954–1957), 5:263, no. 949, fig. 1226. I owe this observation to Christine Boeckl.
The painting is in poor condition. Perhaps as a result of the transfer process, which was probably undertaken in the nineteenth century, there are losses in many of the thinly painted areas of the painting. A good deal of old
A layer of paint that covers original paint.
So many losses exist in the painting that it was determined that it would be best to merely consolidate the painting when it was treated in 1977, despite the presence of extensive
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower left: Rembrandt f. 1658
Captain William Baillie [1723-1792], London; (his sale, Langford & Son, London, 1-2 February 1771, 2nd day, no. 73). possibly English private collection, by 1772. Major Stanton; (Earl of Essex sale, Christie & Ansell, London, 31 January-1 February 1777, 2nd day, no. 75); Moris. (Charles Sedelmeyer, Paris); Charles T. Yerkes, Jr. [1837-1905], Chicago and New York, by 1893; (his sale, American Art Association, New York, 5-8 April 1910, no. 1160); (Scott and Fowles, New York); Otto H. Kahn [1867-1934], New York, by 1914 until at least April 1922; sold 1922, perhaps through (Scott and Fowles, New York) to Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, after purchase by funds of the estate; gift 1942 to NGA.
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- Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt, des Meisters Handzeichnungen. 2 vols. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben. Berlin, 1925–1934: 2(1934):407 (under nos. 607 and 608).
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- Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1931: 68, repro.
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- National Gallery of Art. Paintings and Sculpture from the Widener Collection. Washington, 1948: 46, repro.
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The painting has been transferred and is now on a cradled, horizontally grained wood panel with a layer of gauze between the panel and paint layer. The original support also appears to have been wood. No ground layer is present; it was probably removed during the transfer.
The paint was applied in successive, medium-rich layers of varying thickness, with broad and free brushmarking giving way to finer strokes in the faces. X-radiographs indicate that Mercury’s right arm was originally higher and extended farther from his body. The upper edge of this underlying arm is now visible on the surface as a thin, white line. The nature of this line was mistaken by a previous restorer, who used it to form the upper edge of the glass on the table between Mercury and Jupiter. The paint has suffered severe abrasion, particularly in the darks where, as a result, the gauze interleaf is visible. Extensive repainting and reinforcement is found throughout. The losses were consolidated in 1977, and in 2008 the painting was treated to reduce the significantly discolored varnish and remove some of the old overpaint, but the majority of the overpaint was left in place.
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- Philemon and Baucis