Meleager and Atalanta

WAG 1181


The story of Atalanta and Meleager is told by the Roman poet Ovid in Metamorphoses. Meleager was the son of Ares and Althaea. The Fates had predicted that Meleager would die if a log, burning on the hearth when he was born, were to be put back on the fire. The goddess Artemis or Diana was infuriated by the King of Calydon's disrespect for her and had sent an enormous boar to ravage the fields of Calydon. Meleager and Atalanta hunted the Calydonian boar and fell in love during the hunt. When Meleager assisted by Atalanta killed the boar, he offered the boar's head to Atalanta as a gesture of love. Meleager's uncles were however deeply offended and in the fight that followed Meleager killed them. Meleager's mother Althaea became angry and placed the log she had hidden away since Meleager's birth back on the fire. As a result the Fates' prophecy came true and Meleager died. This tragic story fascinated Rubens throughout his life but he first painted the scene of the hunt in which Atalanta is shooting an arrow while Meleager stands next to her with his spear ready to deliver the final blow. In the Walker painting, Rubens chose the moment when Meleager declared his love to Atalanta. The painting is not signed by Rubens himself and is a small version of a large picture on canvas painted by Rubens in about 1635 and now in Munich's Alte Pinakothek. The Walker painting was probably made in Rubens's studio under his supervision and may have served as a small-scale replica of the first design for a major commission. It was painted on an oak panel on the back of which there are the initials of Rubens' famous panel maker Michiel Vriendt. In 1617, according to the law Antwerp panels had to be inspected and sealed with the Coat of arms of Antwerp and panel makers also had to mark their work. The purchase of ready-made panels saved artists time. Panel making was a highly respected profession, with a long tradition in Antwerp. The date (1637) of Rubens's panel maker's death and the dated large canvas in Munich's Alte Pinakothek, (painted in 1635, when the artist had retired from political and diplomatic affairs and had begun to live a quiet life in his country house with his young wife Helena Fourment), enable us to date the Walker painting between 1635 and 1637. The most distinct features of Rubens's work, which can be also observed in the big painting The Virgin and Child with St. Elizabeth and the Child Baptist on display in the Wavertree Gallery, are: the treatment of flesh, the fluid brush-work suggesting movement and the rich and vibrant colours, noted even in the details, such as the blood in the hands of Meleager and the strap of his sandals. The painting, although small in scale, includes all the details of the story: the bow at the feet of Atalanta and the dogs beside her, the boar's skin on which Meleager steps and finally the figure of the Fate (Moira) in the sky, pulling her hair and biting her finger, warning of Meleager's doomed future. The painting was presented to the Walker art Gallery in 1932 by George Audley (1864 - 1932) who contributed to the cost of the extension of the Walker Art Gallery in 1930. George Audley mainly collected after his retirement from business and his collection included European work of different periods and schools. Audley donated most of his Victorian paintings to the Walker Art Gallery as soon as he had acquired them.