"Europa" (The Abduction of Europa) After Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre (French, 1714-1789) A Very Fine and Large French 19th Century Oil on Canvas within a very fine period rococo gildwood carved frame, depicting the god Jupiter in the guise of a bull gently winning the confidence of Europa, who drapes his horns with a crown of flowers. Europa mounts the bull, who carries her off across the water, abducted as his bride. Circa: Paris, Mid 1800's.
Christie's New York, April 7, 1988, Lot 114A - Described as "Manner of Natoire".
Canvas Height: 38 1/2 inches (97.7 cm)
Canvas Width: 52 1/4 inches (132.7 cm)
Frame Height: 58 inches (147.3 cm)
Frame Width: 70 inches (177.8 cm)
Frame Depth: 6 inches (15.2 cm)
The present painting, a reduced work in reverse, after Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre's enormous "Abduction of Europa" made to decorate the salon of the artist's friend, celebrated amateur, collector and theoretician, Claude-Henri Watelet (French, 1718-1786), who owned over 20 works by the artist. The original, which measures more than 9 feet wide, was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1750 and is today in the Dallas Museum of Art.
According to the traditional Hellenistic myth, Jupiter, the most powerful of the gods, is in love with the princess Europa. He has taken on the form of a beautiful white bull to seduce the Tyrean maiden Europa, and with seemingly tame behavior induced the girl to climb upon his back. As soon as she does, the bull makes for the sea and bears the terrified Europa from her native Sidon to the island of Crete, where he consummates his passion and conveys the mythic import of the story transformative experience of supernatural possession or ecstasy, which may have a positive outcome. Zeus was a sky god, a thunder god, indeed a warrior god of the Patriarchal Hellenist culture and here he is being represented by a flying eagle aproaching Europe.
Europa is precariously balanced on the back of the bull, the artist has visualized the fearfulness of the deep with the two ocean predators that gleam in the turbulent waters. Europa’s rolling eyes has caught sight of two cupids (spiritelli d’amore or little spirits of love), personifying another passion. This notion is itself expressed by a third Cupid holding a wreath of flowers.
From her union with Jupiter, Minos will be born, and the most ancient of European civilizations on the island of Crete. Her brother Cadmus, the inventor of writing, will search for her, and found the great ancient city of Thebes. The painting records no less than the birth of civilization, the birth of Europe.
It may have been these features of the myth of Europa that led artists like Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) to select the subject for the most powerful prince in Europe, Philip II of Spain, ruler of a vast empire that included the Netherlands as well as possessions in the New World and Asia. It befitted Philip’s status that he could command the services of the most celebrated painter in Europe, thereby also enhancing his own cultural prestige. The king owned no less than thirty paintings by Titian. For the most part, these were religious pictures: Philip saw himself as a champion of the Roman Catholic faith, and he is often remembered as a militant and notorious promoter of its mounting campaign to re-establish its supremacy in the face of Protestantism. Philip also supported the church’s increasingly rigorous pronouncements on orthodoxy in faith and morals, which meant that the Inquisition could operate with sweeping authority within his dominions. Yet Titian also painted mythological subjects for this most austerely catholic of sovereigns. Known as poesie because their subject matter derived from the works of classical poets such as Ovid, these works were “pagan” both in their depiction of fables of the ancient gods and in their markedly non-Christian character. They are frankly sensuous and erotic, sometimes violent, and seem devised to highlight Titian’s virtuoso treatment of the naked female body in a variety of situations and in a range of different poses. The series of poesie began in 1553 or 1554 with another portrayal of female forbearance in the face of divine rapacity: Danaë, followed by Venus and Adonis (both in the Prado, Madrid), Perseus and Andromeda (1554–56, long thought to be the version in the Wallace Collection, London, but possibly lost), Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto (1559, Duke of Sutherland, on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), and the Europa, completed in 1562. As Titian told Philip in a letter of that year, the painting of Europa “set the seal” on the series of works he had made for the king.
The idea that they were conceived for the king’s private and purely sensual enjoyment is too simple, as is the notion that they provided him with a sexualized allegory of his own masculine authority through images of the dominated female body. Clearly they are not without an element of what one modern commentator has called “political titillation.” Philip was, perhaps inevitably, compared to Jupiter by contemporaries, and stories of the power of gods – Diana or Jupiter – over mortals would have publicized an image of the irresistible mastery and unlimited prerogatives of an absolutist monarch. Yet Titian’s approach to these subjects makes them no more reducible to the ends of propaganda than of pornography. There is always a dark side to his portrayal of the gods and their amorous and imperious ways that indicates a more questioning or ambivalent attitude.
Source: Stephen J. Campbell, "Europa," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 103-107.