(b. 1604, Chamagne, d. 1682, Roma)

Coast Scene with the Rape of Europa

Oil on canvas, 134,6 x 101,6 cm
Royal Collection, London

The painting is signed and dated: CLAVDE GILLE IVRI/ROMAE 1667.

There are in all five painted versions of this subject by Claude dating from four different decades. The earliest is dated 1634 (Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum), followed by the second, dated 1647 (on loan to Utrecht, Centraal Museum), a third dated 1655 (Moscow, Pushkin Museum) and a fourth of 1658 (private collection). The version in the Royal Collection, dated 1667, is the last in the series and in many ways marks the climax of the artist's treatment of the theme. This is admirably reflected in its heightened poetic sensibility and the sophisticated level of technical skills. Of the various compositions, that of 1634 is also recorded in an etching, while the others are included in Claude's Liber Veritatis (LV 111, 136 and 144), which served as an official drawn record made by the artist himself of his painted compositions dating from 1637 onwards.

While the basic features of the design and iconography were established in the Fort Worth painting, changes or differences in emphasis occur in the others as Claude modified his style. It is also true to say that the version in Utrecht served as the basis for the later renderings, particularly in the greater spaciousness of the setting. There is a closer compositional affinity, however, between the painting in Moscow and the present picture, although small alterations in scale and in the number of figures and animals are apparent. For the painting in the Royal Collection Claude most probably referred back to the drawing of the Moscow version made for the Liber Veritatis (LV 136), although the picture itself remained in Rome in the collection of Fabio Chigi (1599-1667), who was elected Pope as Alexander VII in 1655 and was one of the artist's most important patrons.

There is circumstantial evidence in the form of an inscription made by a later hand on the back of the drawing (LV 136) that the painting in the Royal Collection was made for Philippe de Graveron. An autograph drawing dated 1670, not from the Liber Veritatis, after the present painting is in the British Museum, London.

The source for the story of the Rape of Europa is Ovid's Metamorphoses (II, 833-75). Jupiter, enamoured with Europa, the daughter of Agenor, changes himself into a white bull and mingles with the herd of cattle on the seashore where Europa and her maidens linger. Attracted by the beauty of the bull and not aware of Jupiter's transformation, Europa climbs onto its back and is abducted, eventually being carried out to sea. The description in Ovid is immensely poetic and Claude, by this time well versed in mythology and fully practised in its depiction, successfully expresses the beauty of the text in paint. The mood of the picture is established principally by the chief compositional features of trees, coastline, vessels and fortification judiciously placed within the picture space. The wide spatial intervals create a feeling of calm while quicker rhythms required for the narrative are concentrated in the foreground. The tonal values help to create an atmosphere charged with poetic feeling while the soft breeze wafting from the water is almost palpable. The overall beauty of the painting is enhanced by a number of felicitous details, both in terms of colour and of observation, in which Claude's painting matches Ovid's poetry. The care lavished on the draperies, the flowers and garlands, the waves lapping the sides of the vessels, and the down along the flanks of the cattle testify to the precision of Claude's art in creating a world that oscillates between quotidian experience and arcadian bliss.