LASTMAN, Pieter Pietersz.
(b. 1583, Amsterdam, d. 1633, Amsterdam)

Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io

Oil on oak, 54 x 78 cm
National Gallery, London

Lastman was the most important and influential Amsterdam painter of his generation, and his influence persists throughout the work of Rembrandt, the very much greater artist who was his pupil for only six months. After an extended stay in Italy, Lastman returned home to practise 'history painting' - heroic narratives with a moral bias, based mainly on the Bible but occasionally also on classical history and literature, as in this picture. Because he did not rely on commissions he could choose his own subjects and he favoured ones involving conversations and sudden confrontations. Characteristically he has here taken an unusual moment from a famous mythological tale in Ovid's Metamorphoses. As in most of his work, whether on a large or small scale, Lastman has invested the scene with a mixture of Italianate grandeur and a sly humorous realism of Netherlandish extraction.

Ovid relates that Jupiter, king of the gods, has fallen in love again, this time with the beautiful nymph Io. His wife Juno, looking down from the heavens, sees the dark cloud he has spread to entrap Io and descends to earth to check on him. Hoping to deceive her, Jupiter turns Io into a beautiful heifer, but Juno makes him give her the beast and despatches hundred-eyed Argus to guard it. On Jupiter's orders Mercury lulls Argus to sleep and kills him. Juno then takes his eyes to decorate her peacocks' tails.

Lastman illustrates the confrontation between deceitful Jupiter and suspicious Juno (Metamorphoses I, 612-16). The peacocks who draw Juno's celestial chariot, their tails still dull in colour since Argus has not yet come into the story, are furiously braking their flight. Jupiter, with the aid of winged Love and red-masked Deceit with his attribute of a fox's pelt, two characters not mentioned by Ovid, is trying to conceal the enormous heifer from the goddess. The juxtaposition of heroic nudity with his guilty and rueful expression makes him look foolish. Henpecked husband and domineering wife are old themes of humorous Northern prints and Lastman may have wittily seized this opportunity to graft the native genre onto a Latin tale of adulterous passion among the pagan gods.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 38 minutes):
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony in C Major (Jupiter-Symphony) K 551