About the artwork
Artist: Francesco Solimena (1657-1747)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:179 x 232.8 cm
Accession number: WAG 6366
Francesco Solimena was the son of the painter and poet Angelo Solimena and Marta Grisignano. Solimena's biographer reported that young Francesco had impressed his elders with his prodigious ability, but the artist had become so famous that he may have dictated this detail to his biographer. Angelo intended his son to study law and thus Francesco was forced into a rigorous programme of grammar, oratory and philosophy. Francesco took Holy Orders and depicted himself in clerical dress in his Self-portrait now in the Museo di San Martino in Naples. It was Cardinal Vincenzo Orsini (later Pope Benedict XIII) who appreciated Solimena's talent and encouraged him to be an artist.
Francesco arrived in Naples at the age of seventeen. At that time painters followed either the manner of Francesco di Maria (1623-1690), with an emphasis on drawing and composition or that of Luca Giordano (1634-1705) with a preference for colour and the inspiration of the moment rather than careful design. Although Francesco initially chose to study in di Maria's studio he was very soon disappointed. Francesco is supposed to have explained to his teacher that he was more interested in paintings rather than drawings because paintings could be displayed in churches and be seen by the public.
In the early stage of his career Francesco collaborated with his father on murals for churches. In many of these works Francesco followed the manner of the artist Luca Giordano especially in using radiant light. In 1681 Francesco received several commissions by the Abbey of Monte Cassino and in 1685 he painted a series of fresco murals for Neapolitan churches.
After 1690 Francesco's work became more sombre probably as a response to changing taste. The connoisseurs of painting at the time preferred a picture painted in dark colours and believed that dark colours powerfully conveyed the meaning of the painting as opposed to vivid colours, which were regarded as less expressive.
Diana and Endymion belongs to the last period of Solimena's work when the artist shifted towards classical subject matter and revealed a concern for depicting ideal beauty. Solimena might have adopted this new classical manner in an attempt to compete with his rival Paolo de Matteis or having been inspired by a visit to Rome around 1701.
Diana or in Greek, Artemis was according to Greek mythology one of the twelve Gods and Goddesses of Olympus. She was an earth Goddess whose major attribute was chastity. The Romans worshipped her as a triple deity Luna (the sky), Diana (the earth) and Hecate (the underworld). Diana is associated with several stories and has often been represented in painting either as a huntress, bathing, accompanied by nymphs or punishing the nymph Callisto for losing her chastity as in the painting by Richard Wilson in the Lady Lever Art Galllery. Solimena painted the story of Diana's love for the beautiful youth Endymion. Diana visited the young Endymion who was sent to sleep by Jupiter as a return for being granted eternal youth. Thus Endymion is a symbol of timeless beauty. Diana's love remained unfulfilled because the Goddess was chaste. The Goddess's love is a metaphor for Platonic love where love of eternal beauty equals e love of the eternal spirit.
Solimena's painting of Endymion 's body reflects the artist's early training in drawing. The youth's body is not only accurately depicted but also idealised. In the Sculpture Gallery of the Walker, Adonis's dead body in the small terracotta Venus and Adonis by Solomon Gibson (1796-1866) resembles the body of Endymion in Solimena' painting. Endymion's nudity contrasts with the well-covered body of Diana. The soft lighting and the use of shadows accentuate Endymion's ideal lines but also animate his flesh. Solimena used tones of red and pink to bring the sleeping youth in life. Diana's face appears rather dark and grey; her gaze is fixed on Endymion and her expression could be seen as a mixture of desire and despair. The Goddess's gaze could be viewed as more shocking than the nudity of Endymion.
Solimena's representation of the story is literal: the identity of the Goddess is revealed by the quiver, the golden details of which Solimena so accurately painted. Diana arrived from the sky in a chariot; the horses can be discerned in the left side of the painting. She is seated on grey clouds whose round shapes allude to femininity. Solimena relied on the moonlight and the contrast of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) to convey the tragedy but at the same time the spiritual nature of this love. Solimena's interest in mythological stories is related to a movement of literature, known as the Arcadian movement; it originated in Rome with a neapolitan branch starting around 1690. Many of Solimena's patrons were members of this movement and were inspired by classical culture.
The Walker Art gallery bought the painting in 1966 with the aid of the Art Fund.