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About the artwork

Medium: Oil on wood
Dimensions: 55.6 x 38.3 cm
Accession number: WAG 1181

Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish painter who throughout his life engaged in a number of activities; he was a collector of art, a classical scholar and a diplomat. In 1629 Rubens arrived in London as the special envoy from the Spanish court to assist in the settlement of peace between England and Spain. Many of the paintings Rubens painted during his stay in London are in the National Gallery. The most well known work by Rubens in London is the decoration of the ceiling of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. The assignment of such a large-scale commission to Rubens by King Charles I is proof of the artist's high status and reputation amongst English patrons.

Rubens was a painter of historical and mythological themes but he also completed several portraits and landscapes. Peter and his brother Paul a student of classical literature and philosophy, spent several years in Italy studying classical and Renaissance art as well as Roman poetry and history. 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 Dianne 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' panel makers' 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 painting is similar to the Venus and Adonis picture in the Metropolitan Museum of New York by Rubens. In both paintings the emphasis is on the affectionate encounter of the lovers brought together by the figure of a cupid. Rubens was inspired to paint the Venus and Adonis theme after the painting by the Renaissance artist Titian (c1485/90-1576). Rubens was a great admirer of Titian; he owned work by the Venetian master and during his stay in Italy he made several copies of Titian's paintings. For the figure of Atalanta Rubens drew from Titian's Venus with a Mirror, but transformed the cold reserve of Venus expression for a tender acquiescence to Meleager's affection.

The most distinct features of Rubens' 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 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.

More information

This painting, recently cleaned to reveal its delicate harmonies and vibrant colours, is a copy with slight variants of a large picture on canvas (now in Munich) which Rubens painted in about 1635. This copy was probably made in Rubens’ studio under his supervision. It was painted on two planks of wood, and the back was carved with the initials of Rubens’ favourite Antwerp panel-maker Michiel Vrient, who died in 1637.

The tragic love story, from classical mythology, of Meleager and his love, the huntress Atalanta, frequently attracted Rubens. The couple set out to kill a wild boar that had been ravaging their country. Having slain it, Meleager gave its head to Atalanta, the first to wound it. The gift provoked a fight with his envious uncles, whom Meleager slew, so enraging his mother that she fulfilled the death foretold for him by the Fates. Rubens has concentrated on the happy lovers. Atalanta tenderly accepts the gory token of Meleager’s affection whilst above one of the Fates warns of Meleager’s doomed future.