Pieter Lastman, Juno discovering Jupiter with Io, 1618, National Gallery, London.
I started writing Picture Of The Day on 19 March – so I’m now beginning the second month! To celebrate I want to return to several of the themes of POTD 1: Jupiter, a great god, but a bad man; cows – Jupiter had disguised himself as a bull in order to carry off the fair nymph Europa; and the best! In that very first picture, I nominated one of Titian’s fish as the Best Fish in Art. Since then, we’ve had the Best Cabbage (POTD 3) and the Best Eggs (POTD 20). Today, I’m proposing a slightly different category, and I’m very grateful to Pamela for reminding me about the Prettiest Cow in the National Gallery.
You might not have heard of today’s artist, Pieter Lastman, but he was really good, just lacking that final touch of genius that would make him famous today. What he is most known for now is teaching someone who had that genius – Rembrandt van Rijn (more of him tomorrow!) I confess, I don’t know Lastman’s work that well, but there are two superb examples in the National Gallery in London, and I have talked about this one quite often. You might think, at first glance, that it doesn’t look at all like Rembrandt’s work – but that’s because we are more familiar with the mature paintings than with his first endeavours, which look far more like his master’s oeuvre: bright, clear, colours; crisp outlines; and clarity. In fact, nothing that would suggest his late work would be so profoundly moving. The Late Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery remains one of my favourite ever. There was to have been an Early Rembrandt exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford – I was looking forward to it immensely – but I don’t know, at this stage, if it will ever see the bright, clear light of day.
In this particular painting Lastman shows himself to be a master storyteller – one of the things you will have realised I really appreciate in an artist. He gives us many clues as to what is going on. Now clearly, the focus of the painting is the cow – and I stand by the appellation, the Prettiest Cow in the National Gallery – or for that matter, in Art. Look at those deep dark eyes, eyes you could drown yourself in (a cliché, I know – and if anyone could tell me who said it first I’d be grateful) – but look at those delicate eyelashes too, fluttering at you. And yes, they are fluttering at you in particular. It’s almost as if Lastman has taken the words of renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti to heart:
‘In a painting I like to see someone who admonishes and points out to us what is happening there; or beckons with his hand to see; or menaces with an angry face and with flashing eyes, so that no one should come near; or shows some danger or marvellous thing there; or invites us to weep or to laugh together with them. Thus whatever the painted persons do among themselves or with the beholder, all is pointed towards ornamenting or teaching the story’.
Notice how he says that the ‘painted persons’ interact with ‘the beholder’ – he knows that paintings can speak to us. It just happens that, nearly two centuries after Alberti was writing, the ‘person’ interacting with us in this painting is a cow. Having someone in the painting looking at us strengthens our connection with it, and enhances our understanding of what is going on. More of Alberti’s ‘On Painting’ later in the week, I think. What exactly is the cow thinking though – well, that is a little more complex.
Just next to her is a boy with wings, a quiver tied round his back, and a bow discarded on the floor in front of him – this is Cupid, the little God of Love. So we already know that this is a painting about love. He is holding one end of a pink cloth, the other end of which is held by a man with a rather curiously red face, wearing almost nothing but a fox fur which is almost wrapped round his waist.
On closer inspection you can see the redness of his face has a clear, sharp edge around the jawline, and around each eye, revealing flesh tones: he is wearing a mask. This tells us he is a personification of Deceit. Wearing a mask you are showing a second face – hence being two-faced. The wily fox was also seen as an emblem of Deceit. So we now know this painting is about love and deceit. And a cow. In the top left-hand corner is a woman sitting on a chariot pulled by two peacocks. This is Juno, Queen of the Gods and Goddesses, and wife of Jupiter (she was also his sister, but… well, let’s just try and conveniently forget that, as everyone else always has – Albert Square has got nothing on Olympus). Admittedly you would have to know your classical myths to know who this is, which might make it look like bad storytelling, but Lastman’s audience would have done, and would have instantly recognised her. With her left hand planted on the side of the chariot, and looking across the painting with some sense of – astonishment, I suppose, and slight confusion – she has an air of controlled indignation. She knew something was going on, but not exactly what. The other person in the painting, like Deceit, also has a red face. But this is the flush of embarrassment. Oddly Lastman shows us no visual clues as to this person’s identity (OK, so we’ve all read the title, but go with me…) but given the circumstances – an indignant Juno, Cupid, God of Love and Deceit, there is only one person it can be: Jupiter. And there he is, wearing absolutely nothing – OK, a blue cloth thrown over for the sake of decency – with his arm round a cow. She is exceptionally pretty.
But what is going on? The last time we saw him, Jupiter himself was the cow – or rather bull – disguised so he could creep up on the unsuspecting Europa. Well, things aren’t that different here. As I said, Jupiter was a great god, but a bad man. He would go after anything that moved, but the ‘anything’ usually knew to be wary as he was trouble, and if Juno found out she was worse. So Jupiter would disguise himself. He seems not to have used the same disguise twice – presumably people would catch on. And when he saw the beautiful nymph Io – actually she was a mere mortal – he came up with one of his most unexpected disguises – a cloud. There is a beautifully sensuous painting of this by Correggio in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. And yet, I am more often reminded of E.H. Shepard’s illustration of Winnie the Pooh disguised as a rain cloud to get the honey from the bees…
Still, once Jupiter was safely disguised, Juno – one of whose responsibilities was the weather, it seems – noticed that it was cloudy and shouldn’t be, so realised her husband must be up to something. She jumped into her chariot, and got there as quick as she could. Having arrived, she has come to a sudden halt. One of the truly great things about this painting is the way in which the peacocks have slammed on the breaks – wings spread, legs thrust forward. How did Lastman know they would do that?! She looks over at her husband, understandable indignant, but he has already seen her coming and has transformed the poor girl into a cow. Cupid and Deceit try to cover her with the pink cloth. No wonder Juno is slightly confused. There is her husband, naked and blushing, with his arm around a farmyard animal. I really do think this is the origin of the phrase, ‘Who was that cow I saw you with last night?’
Now the more ornithologically minded among you might have noticed that the peacocks don’t quite look like the peacocks we would expect to see. This is Lastman being rather clever. Juno had had enough of her husband’s philandering, so she got the 100-eyed giant Argos to stand guard (having 100 eyes is very useful when you’re trying to find items in a catalogue shop warehouse, of course). Jupiter, understandably, didn’t want anyone keeping an eye on him – let alone 100 eyes – so he got Mercury, messenger of the Gods, to kill Argos. Juno wasn’t letting it go, though, so she took the eyes from the dead giant and put them on the tails of her peacocks. So that’s why the peacocks don’t have any eyes on their tails in this painting – that bit of the story hasn’t happened yet!
And Io? Well, the accounts vary, but eventually, most say, she was transformed back into a human being. However, her name is most often mentioned nowadays as one of the moons of the planet Jupiter. When astronomers first discovered there were moons orbiting the largest planet in our solar system, they wisely looked back to the classical myths and chose names from those unfortunates who had come within the God’s sphere of influence. Io and Europa are just two. Now, you might think that contemporary astronomers are an entirely serious bunch (if not entirely Sirius), but when they planned a mission to explore Jupiter and its moons, what better name could they choose? Launched in 2011 the probe arrived in 2016, and is still in orbit – and will be until July next year. With at least 9 different types of sensors and cameras, Juno is still keeping more than one beady eye on Jupiter and his lovers.