The current exhibition in the European works on paper rotation space (on view until April 2) is Gods and Heroes: Classical Mythology in European Prints. The show features 21 prints that cover the Renaissance through the early twentieth century and are by artists from Germany, Holland, France, Italy, and England. Each print offers insight into why European artists used the narratives of classical mythology. This is the second in a series of posts focusing on the exhibition.
We’ve already seen how the ancient sculpture of Italy inspired a French Rococo artist in the four prints of the Bacchanals. In this post, we’ll explore another artist’s use of Classical mythology.
The Mocking of Ceres shows Ceres, the goddess of the earth and agriculture, taking a drink. She has been searching the world for her daughter Persephone, who was abducted by Pluto, the ruler of the underworld. Coming upon a small cottage, she asks an old woman for some water. Because Ceres is drinking quickly, a little boy mocks her for her greediness. Angry, Ceres throws her drink at the boy and turns him into a lizard.
This story is just one of the many told by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC–AD 17) in his work called Metamorphoses. The book-length poem, written in Latin, collected together Greek mythological stories that had some element of transformation as a plot point.
Many Renaissance and Baroque European artists, even though they were Christian, were interested in Classical myths that had a moralizing overtone. There are many lessons to learn from this particular story:
-Be kind to strangers—you never know when a deity will show up at your door!
-Do not be rude—or you might be transformed into a lizard!
-Motherly love is a virtue—Ceres lets nothing get in her way in her search to find her daughter!
But there is more about this image that makes it so interesting…
Elsheimer spent most of his short career in Italy (he only lived to 32), specializing in miniature-like paintings on copper. He became known for his skill in portraying grand scenes with painstaking detail in small scale.
He was also intrigued with tenebrism, which means that he used dramatic lights and darks to create drama; he was likely influenced by the Italian artist Caravaggio (1571–1610).
It was Elsheimer’s decision to set The Mocking of Ceres at night, because Ovid does not refer to the time of day for the story, and no other artist is known to have shown the story after dark. His choice creates a mysterious and magical composition.
He has crowded the picture with figures, penning them into a tight composition set in a small clearing in the forest. This not only adds to the drama, but it also allows him to convey the three-dimensionality of many things through the various sources of light.
There are a number of versions of this painting that may be by Elsheimer and after him. In fact, the original painting is not conclusively identified. Two of the best known versions are at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University and the Prado in Madrid.
Meanwhile, Hendrik Goudt only made seven prints in his lifetime and all of them after paintings by Elsheimer. Despite his small output, Goudt was clearly a talented printmaker.
In The Mocking of Ceres, he is masterful in capturing the light and dark of the painting, something which would have been very difficult to achieve in engraving. It was Goudt’s prints, as well as the paintings by Elsheimer that he brought back to Holland after the painter’s untimely death, that helped spread Elsheimer’s fame among other artists. Elsheimer was known to have influenced even Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669) and Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640).
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.