Clark examines Wtewael’s work

Michael Cassin, curator of education at the Clark Art Institute, presented the first in a series of four lectures at the Clark on Wednesday. The purpose of these talks is to highlight works in the Clark collection, and present an expanded context in which to view them.

The theme of the talk was narrative content in works of art. The lecture focused on a painting by a Dutch artist Joachim Wtewael. Entitled The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the 1612 work is an unusual oil on copper piece. The incredibly detailed tableau would have originally been prominently displayed on a palace wall. The small size of the painting, 14 inches by 16 inches, makes it incredibly difficult to see all of the details. Cassin estimated that the painting contained approximately 55 figures, most of them in contorted positions, typical of the Mannerist style. Wtewael belonged to the Dutch Mannerist School, whose members painted complex compositions in an attempt to outdo the artists of the previous generation, such as Michelangelo.

One of the interesting challenges of Wtewael’s work was trying to locate the title figures, Peleus and Thetis, from among the many depicted characters. In the foreground, one woman particularly stands out, as she was much paler than the rest and has long golden hair. Cassin pointed out that this was probably Venus, as she was accompanied by her son and companion Cupid, and was embracing Mars, with whom she had a mythological extramarital affair.

Cassin then pointed to another couple at the head of the table. He felt these figures, who wear a crown and a crescent moon, respectively, were meant to be Jupiter and his daughter, Diana. Finally, he pointed out to the audience the couple he suspects is Peleus and Thetis, whose gazes are concentrated on the angels in the sky. He noted that the woman has what appears to be seaweed in her hair – consistent with Thetis’ sea-nymph appearance.

Cassin then moved backwards in time, showing a painting of Thetis and Jupiter. Jupiter had fallen in love with Thetis, but broke off the relationship quickly when he learned the prophecy that Thetis’ son would go on to be much greater than his father. Then Peleus, the King of Thessaly, wanted Thetis for his bride, but she managed to evade him due to her ability to transform her appearance.

Still, the king succeeded in conquering Thetis, and their son was born Achilles, one of the greatest warriors in the Trojan War. To protect her infant son, Thetis dipped the young Achilles into the River Styx, and by doing so made him famously nigh-invulnerable. As seen in a large-scale painting dated circa 1630 by Peter Paul Rubens, Achilles’ heel was his one vulnerable place, as Thetis needed to hold him by the foot to immerse him in the magical waters.

Cassin then returned to Wtewael’s work, noting the other mythological characters that are present: Hercules, Minerva, Vulcan, Bacchus, Neptune, Apollo, Saturn and the satyrs. The one goddess Thetis left off the guest list was Eris, the goddess of discord. However, Eris appeared at the wedding anyway, and dropped onto the table a golden apple on which was inscribed “For the Fairest.”

Minerva, Juno and Venus all claimed the right to the apple. Jupiter gave the apple to a shepherd boy named Paris to bestow upon the fairest woman. The goddesses bargained with Paris: Juno promised Paris riches and power in exchange for the apple, Minerva offered success in battle and Venus proposed the love of any woman he chose. Paris finally chose to give the apple to Venus, and true to her word, her triumph over the other goddesses won for him the love of Helen of Troy, sparking the Trojan War. Cassin showed another painting of Wtewael’s depicting this event, and noted that in the background of this painting, the wedding festivities are taking place.

Returning to the original subject of the talk, the Judgment of Paris was clearly visible in the background, highlighting Wtewael’s comprehensive knowledge of Roman mythology.

At the end of the lecture, Cassin speculated as to why the work was painted on a small piece of copper. He noted that copper is highly polished, allowing for an incredible amount of detail. The material is also sturdy, so the work could not be easily damaged. Furthermore, the copper painting’s small size more easily allowed collecting by art connoisseurs.