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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Rembrandt van Rijn/Philemon and Baucis/1658,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed September 21, 2017).


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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.[1] For those artists who preferred to depict subjects in Ovid that allowed them to represent sensual scenes of love, betrayal, or deceit, the story had no appeal. The story of deities quietly revealing themselves to humble and devoted individuals, however, struck a responsive chord for Rembrandt that allowed him to penetrate the essence of the myth as no artist ever had.

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.[2] Rembrandt evoked the warmth of the old couple’s personality and suggested much of Ovid’s vivid description of their humble abode, including the fire over which Baucis had cooked the cabbage and bacon for their meal. Yet, Rembrandt’s interest was not in portraying the eventual rewards of the couple’s generosity but in the moment of revelation. Ovid writes that Philemon and Baucis recognized that they were in the presence of gods when their bowls of food and decanters of wine kept replenishing themselves. In fear, they raised their hands in prayer. Then, in an effort to offer better fare, they tried to catch their only goose, which escaped their grasp and fled to the strangers for refuge. The moment Rembrandt has depicted is that in which Jupiter both commands them not to kill the goose and blesses their offering with a firm yet comforting gesture.

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.[3] The differences in subject matter and presentation, between the dynamic theatricality of one and the subdued, evocative nature of the other, are characteristic of Rembrandt’s artistic evolution. Throughout his life, he carefully considered textual sources, whether they were biblical or mythological, but he also drew on others’ interpretations of comparable scenes for his inspiration.[4] When he first turned to Ovid around 1630, he did so under the influence of Rubens and, for example, clearly derived his inspiration for the Abduction of Proserpina from a print by Pieter Claesz Soutman (Flemish, c. 1580 - 1657) after a Rubens composition.[5] For Philemon and Baucis, painted in 1658, the visual sources are entirely different. They reflect a fusion of mythological and biblical images that helps account for the intense spirituality of the scene.

Adam Elsheimer (German, 1578 - 1610)’s painting Philemon and Baucis, 1608 (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, inv. no. 1977), known to Rembrandt through Hendrik Goudt (Dutch, 1585 - 1648)’s engraving of 1612 [fig. 1], was a primary source of inspiration.[6] One sees here the gods lounging in the corner of the dimly lit, humble home of the old couple who are busy preparing the meal. Elsheimer, however, depicted an earlier moment of the episode, before Philemon and Baucis had become aware of the divinities’ identities. Rembrandt switched the relative positions of Jupiter and Mercury so that Jupiter, the primary deity, faces the viewer. Dressed in exotic, loosely draped robes, he dominates the scene and takes on a Christ-like appearance that strongly echoes that from the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (Florentine, 1452 - 1519). Rembrandt knew of this composition from a number of sources and made at least three drawings after it, the most extensive of which he executed around 1635 [fig. 2]. Leonardo’s composition had a profound impact on Rembrandt’s art for the rest of his life, and he adopted it for a number of different subjects in prints, drawings, and paintings.[7] In his 1654 etching, Christ at Emmaus, for example, he depicted Christ in a pose comparable to that seen in the Last Supper.[8] As Stechow and others have emphasized, Jupiter in Philemon and Baucis partakes of much the same spirit.[9]

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.[10] His earliest depiction of the biblical story, in 1628 [fig. 3], used as its compositional basis Goudt’s Philemon and Baucis print [fig. 1].[11] Here, however, Rembrandt transformed the light of the oil lamp into a mystical aureole of light behind Christ that frightens and astonishes the apostles. Rembrandt remembered this dramatic effect when he painted a comparable glow of light behind Mercury. Although the light here is more subdued, it serves to give a mysterious radiance to the darkness and to illuminate Jupiter’s golden raiment.

As in Rembrandt’s depictions of Christ at Emmaus [fig. 3], light, rather than symbolic attributes, signifies the revelation of divinity. Rembrandt also uses light to help accent important compositional elements. He reinforces the significance of Jupiter’s gesture, for example, by placing it on axis with a vertical board on the rear wall that is illuminated by Mercury’s aureole. He uses other elements of the dwelling to reinforce his figural composition: the diagonal beams and rope draped over the table both draw the group together and suggest the subdivision within it.

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.[12] Baldinucci probably learned of this series from Bernhard Keil (1624–1687), a Danish artist and Rembrandt pupil who traveled to Italy after being in Amsterdam from about 1642 to 1651. Although no dates for this series of paintings are known, it may belong to the period of Keil’s residence in Amsterdam. Two drawings in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin have frequently been considered preliminary drawings for the Washington painting.[13] The episodes from the story of Philemon and Baucis depicted in the drawings, however, are so different that they have to be understood as independent creations. Closer in concept is Rembrandt’s sympathetic drawing Saint Peter’s Prayer before the Raising of Tabitha, c. 1654/1655 (Musée Bonnat, Bayonne), in which Saint Peter’s pose resembles, in reverse, that of Philemon.[14]

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 Overpaint exists on the surface. The awkward lower portions of Mercury’s torso almost certainly result from such reconstructive work.[15] A mezzotint by Thomas Watson (British, 1743 or 1748 - 1781) of 1772 [fig. 4] provides an impression of the painting’s appearance at that time.

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.[1] Major Stanton; (Earl of Essex sale, Christie & Ansell, London, 31 January-1 February 1777, 2nd day, no. 75); Moris.[2] (Charles Sedelmeyer, Paris); Charles T. Yerkes, Jr. [1837-1905], Chicago and New York, by 1893;[3] (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;[4] 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.

Exhibition History
Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1920, unnumbered catalogue.
Rembrandt Paintings, Drawings and Etchings, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1922, no catalogue.
Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art [Commemorating the Tercentenary of the Artist's Death], National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, no. 18, repro.
A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 47.
Greek Gods and Heroes in the Age of Rubens and Rembrandt, National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens; Dordrechts Museum, 2000-2001, no. 62, repro.
Rembrandt, Albertina, Vienna, 2004, no. 133, repro.
Rembrandt in America, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Cleveland Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2011-2012, no. 46, pl. 41.
Catalogue from Collection of Charles T. Yerkes, Chicago, U.S.A.. Chicago, undated: no. 23.
Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829-1842: 7(1836):79-80, no. 194.
Vosmaer, Carel. Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn: sa vie et ses oeuvres. 2nd ed. The Hague, 1877: 252-253.
Dutuit, Eugène. Tableaux et dessins de Rembrandt: catalogue historique et descriptif; supplément à l'Oeuvre complet de Rembrandt. Paris, 1885: 58, no. 111.
Wurzbach, Alfred von. Rembrandtgalerie. Stuttgart, 1886: 97, no. 493.
Catalogue from Collection of Charles T. Yerkes, Chicago, U.S.A.. Chicago, 1893: no. 45.
Michel, Émile. Rembrandt: Sa vie, son oeuvre et son temps. Paris, 1893: 446-447, 561.
Michel, Émile. Rembrandt: His Life, His Work, and His Time. 2 vols. Translated by Florence Simmonds. New York, 1894: 2:128-129, 248.
Stephens, F.G. "Mr. Yerkes' Collection at Chicago: The Old Masters." The Magazine of Art 18 (1895): 99.
Bode, Wilhelm von, and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot. The Complete Work of Rembrandt. 8 vols. Translated by Florence Simmonds. Paris, 1897-1906: 6:6, 46, no. 407, repro.
Sedelmeyer, Charles. Illustrated Catalogue of 300 Paintings by Old Masters of the Dutch, Flemish, Italian, French, and English schools, being some of the principal pictures which have at various time formed part of the Sedelmeyer Gallery. Paris, 1898: no. 137.
Bell, Malcolm. Rembrandt van Rijn and His Work. London, 1899: 82, 184.
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt: des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. Stuttgart, 1904: 325, 404, repro.
Yerkes, Charles Tyson. Catalogue of paintings and sculpture in the collection of Charles T. Yerkes Esq., New York. 2 vols. New York (photogravures by Elson & Co., Boston), 1904: 1:no. 81, repro.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt und seine Umgebung. Strasbourg, 1905: 97.
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1906: repro. 325, 404.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. "Rembrandt auf der Lateinschule." Jahrbuch der Königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen 27 (1906): 118-128.
Bell, Malcolm. Rembrandt van Rijn. The great masters in painting and sculpture. London, 1907: 79, 156.
Brown, Gerard Baldwin. Rembrandt: A Study of His Life and Work. London, 1907: 138, 211.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: 6(1916):140-141, no. 212.
Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt, reproduced in over five hundred illustrations. Classics in Art 2. New York, 1907: 325, repro.
Thieme, Ulrich, and Felix Becker, eds. Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. 37 vols. Leipzig, 1907-1950: 29(1935):266.
Freise, Kurt. "Rembrandt and Elsheimer." The Burlington Magazine 13 (April 1908): 38–39.
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. 3rd ed. Stuttgart and Berlin, 1908: repro. 388, 562.
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt: Des Meisters Gemälde. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1909: repro. 388, 562.
Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt, reproduced in over five hundred illustrations. Classics in Art 2. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. 2nd ed. New York, 1913: repro. 325.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. The Art of the Low Countries. Translated by Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer. Garden City, NY, 1914: 140-141, 248, no. 76.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition. Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1920: 9.
Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Classics in Art 2. 3rd ed. New York, 1921: 388, repro.
"Widener Purchases Famous Rembrandt." Art News 21 (9 December 1922): 1.
Meldrum, David S. Rembrandt’s Painting, with an Essay on His Life and Work. New York, 1923: 202, pl. 404.
Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1923: unpaginated, repro.
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).
Wilenski, Reginald Howard. An Introduction to Dutch Art. New York, 1929: 59-60.
Borenius, Tancred. "The New Rembrandt." The Burlington Magazine 57 (August 1930): 53-59.
Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1931: 68, repro.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt Paintings in America. New York, 1931: no. 132, repro.
Rijckevorsel, J. L. A. A. M. van. "Rembrandt en de Traditie." Ph.D. diss., Rijksuniversiteit Nijmegen, 1932: 77-78, 80, repro.
Stechow, Wolfgang. "Rembrandts Darstellungen des Emmausmahles." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 3 (1934): 329-341.
Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt Gemälde, 630 Abbildungen. Vienna, 1935: no. 481, repro.
Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt Schilderijen, 630 Afbeeldingen. Utrecht, 1935: no. 481, repro.
Bredius, Abraham. The Paintings of Rembrandt. New York, 1936: no. 481, repro.
Waldmann, Emil. "Die Sammlung Widener." Pantheon 22 (November 1938): 342.
Kieser, Emil. "Über Rembrandts Verhältnis zur Antike." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 10 (1941/1942): 146-147, 160-161.
Stechow, Wolfgang. "Recent Periodical Literature on 17th-Century Painting in the Netherlands and Germany." Art Bulletin 23 (September 1941): 225-231.
Stechow, Wolfgang. "The Myth of Philemon and Baucis in Art." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 4 (January 1941): 103-113, fig. 28a.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. "Jan van de Cappelle." The Art Quarterly 4 (Autumn 1941): 272-296.
Bredius, Abraham. The Paintings of Rembrandt. 2 vols. Translated by John Byam Shaw. Oxford, 1942: 1:no. 481; 2:repro.
National Gallery of Art. Works of art from the Widener collection. Washington, 1942: 6.
Wilenski, Reginald Howard. Dutch Painting. Revised ed. London, 1945: 62.
National Gallery of Art. Paintings and Sculpture from the Widener Collection. Washington, 1948: 46, repro.
Rosenberg, Jakob. Rembrandt. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA, 1948: 1:185.
Benesch, Otto. The Drawings of Rembrandt: A Critical and Chronological Catalogue. 6 vols. London, 1954-1957: 5(1957):277, no. 958; 6(1957):396, no. A76.
National Gallery of Art. Paintings and Sculpture from the Widener Collection. Reprint. Washington, DC, 1959: 46, repro.
Goldscheider, Ludwig. Rembrandt Paintings, Drawings and Etchings. London, 1960: 180, pls. 97, 98.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 313, 342, repro.
Gantner, Joseph. Rembrandt und die Verwandlung klassicher Formen. Berlin, 1964: 157-159, pl. 48.
Rosenberg, Jakob. Rembrandt: Life and Work. Revised ed. Greenwich, Connecticut, 1964: 300.
National Gallery of Art. Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1965: 110.
Bauch, Kurt. Rembrandt Gemälde. Berlin, 1966: 7, no. 106, repro.
Gerson, Horst. Rembrandt Paintings. Amsterdam, 1968: 103, color repro., 108, 132, 155, 357, 364-365, no. 278, repro., 499.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 98, repro.
Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings. Revised by Horst Gerson. 3rd ed. London, 1969: repro. 390, 595, no. 481.
Kitson, Michael. Rembrandt. London, 1969: no. 37, color repro. (also 1982 ed.).
National Gallery of Art. Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art: Commemorating the tercentenary of the artist's death. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1969: 6, 28-29, no. 18, repro.
National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 288, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 283, no. 376, color repro.
Bolten, J., and H. Bolten-Rempt. The Hidden Rembrandt. Translated by Danielle Adkinson. Milan and Chicago, 1977: 145-147, 149-150, color repro.
Kitson, Michael. Rembrandt. 2nd ed. Oxford, 1982: no. 37, color repro.
Schwartz, Gary. Rembrandt: Zijn leven, zijn schilderijen. Maarssen, 1984: 323, 330, no. 373, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 283, no. 370, color repro.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 332, repro.
Schwartz, Gary. Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings. New York, 1985: 323, 330, no. 373, repro.
Sluijter, Eric Jan. "De "Heydensche Fabulen" in de Noordnederlandse schilderkunst circa 1560–1670: een proeve van beschrijving en interpretatie van schilderijen met verhalende onderwerpen uit de klassieke mythologie." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Leiden, 1986: 100.
Sutton, Peter C. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Washington and Grand Rapids, 1986: 313.
Tümpel, Christian. Rembrandt. Translated by Jacques and Jean Duvernet, Léon Karlson, and Patrick Grilli. Paris, 1986: repro. 249, 422, no. A26.
Chapman, H. Perry. Rembrandt's Self-Portraits: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Identity. Princeton, 1990: 91, no. 135, repro.
Liedtke, Walter A. "Dutch Paintings in America: The Collectors and their Ideals." In Great Dutch Paintings from America. Edited by Ben P.J. Broos. Exh. cat. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The Hague and Zwolle, 1990: 43 fig. 30.
Sello, Gottfried. "Beim Wein verrieten sich die Götter." Art Das Kunstmagazin 1 (January 1991): 82-88, repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 247-252, color repro. 249.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 67, no. 47.
Paarlberg, Sander, and Peter Schoon. Greek gods and heroes in the age of Rubens and Rembrandt. Exh. cat. National Gallery/Alexandros Soutzos Museum and the Netherlands Institute, Athens; Dordrechts Museum, Dordrecht. Athens, 2000: no. 62, repro.
Wright, Christopher. Rembrandt. Collection Les Phares 10. Translated by Paul Alexandre. Paris, 2000: 74, fig. 58.
Quodbach, Esmée. "The Last of the American Versailles: The Widener Collection at Lynnewood Hall." Simiolus 29, no. 1/2 (2002): 84, 96.
Tromans, Nicholas. David Wilkie: painter of everyday life. Exh. cat. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 2002: 38, fig. 21.
Golahny, Amy. Rembrandt's Reading: The Artist's Bookshelf of Ancient Poetry and History. Amsterdam, 2003: 225-226, fig. 63..
Schröder, Klaus Albrecht, and Marian Bisanz Prakken. Rembrandt. Edition Minerva. Exh. cat. Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna. Wolfratshausen, 2004: 282, no. 133, repro.
Schwartz, Gary. The Rembrandt Book. New York, 2006: 340, fig. 602.
Keyes, George S., Tom Rassieur, and Dennis P. Weller. Rembrandt in America: collecting and connoisseurship. Exh. cat. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Cleveland Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Arts. New York, 2011: no. 46, pl. 41, 23, 70, 148-150, 157, 198.
Technical Summary

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.

Related IconClass Terms
open fire +used symbolically
patron +Bernhar Keil
artist +Leonardo da Vinci + influence of
Philemon and Baucis