PYNAS, Jacob Symonsz.
(b. ca. 1592, Amsterdam, d. after 1650, Delft)

Mercury and Herse

c. 1618
Oil on copper, 21 x 27,8 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Mercury and Herse, which was formerly attributed to Adam Elsheimer, is a testimony to the great success enjoyed by a painting, now lost, of the same subject by the German master. The painting was admired by members of the group of Italianised painters in Rome, one of whom was the Dutch artist Jacob Pynas, to whom the authorship of this work on copper has now been credited.

The story is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses (II, 708-729) which conveniently allowed artists to combine a classical literary source with landscape painting. Mercury, who has just punished the shepherd Battus for disloyalty, is flying over the farmlands and woods of Attica when he spots a procession of young girls wending their way to the sanctuary of Minerva. Conspicuous in the procession for her beauty is one of the daughters of Cecrops, Herse; the sight of her arouses instant passion in the god, who descends to earth in the hope of encountering her. The story ends with the transformation of the envious Aglauros, Herse's sister, into stone.

For his painting Elsheimer chose the moment when Mercury espied Herse for the first time, which gave him the opportunity to paint an aerial landscape with a procession of young girls winding through it. Elsheimer's lead was followed by Paul Bril in a small painting on copper (Devonshire collection, Chatsworth), by Cornelis van Poelenburch in his youthful painting (Mauritshuis, The Hague) and by Hermann van Swanevelt, who also used the subject in the late 1630s for a painting on canvas (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome). Jacob Pynas's painting fits into this popular context. His interpretation of the landscape, particularly the feathered leaves of the trees, the atmospheric depth and the presence of a small classical temple in the background, seems dependent on the brilliant prototypes mentioned above which date between 1610 and 1615. In particular, the balanced composition, combined with an intense softness in the painting of the natural elements, seems to be a stylistic reference to the mature work of Bril. This could provide further confirmation of the new chronology of Jacob Pynas's stay in Rome, recently altered from 1605-08 to around 1617/18, when his elder brother Jan enjoyed a second sojourn in Italy. This painting is therefore probably more or less contemporary with one of the few works signed and dated by Jacob, his Mercury and Battus (Wiener collection, New York) of 1618.