Jacob Jordaens (Flemish, Antwerp 1593 - 1678 Antwerp)
An Oracle (Thetis and Achilles Before the Oracle)
Oil on panel, transferred to masonite
23 1/8 x 35 3/4 in. (58.7 x 90.8 cm)
Mrs. F. F. Prentiss Fund, 1964
The central portion of Jordaens's painting originally served as a modello for one of a series of tapestries devoted to the life of the Greek hero Achilles. The artist himself subsequently altered and enlarged the original panel, and the painting now offers an intriguing composite of Jordaens's middle and late styles of painting.
The exact subject of Jordaens's painting as it now exists is difficult to identify. In the central portion of the panel, which represents the artist's original conception (see Technical Data), an elderly priest, flanked by two acolytes holding large candelabras, gestures over the oracular offering burning on the altar at center. To the left, a woman enters, crowned with flowers and holding an ointment jar; her left hand is placed on the head of a young boy who carries a staff and a round golden fruit. In the immediate foreground are vessels and a sacrificial lamb.
This central scene has been identified as Thetis Presenting Achilles at the Temple (Thetis and Achilles Before the Oracle). Although there is no classical source for this episode, it was recounted by the sixteenth-century mythographer Natale Conte in his Mythologia (1551).1 While the story of Achilles traditionally begins with his being dipped in the river Styx, the Conte version opens with an account of Thetis going to the oracle at Themis to ask about the future of her son. The ointment jar carried by Thetis in Jordaens's painting is a reference to her attempt to render her child's body invulnerable by annointing it with ambrosia; the golden fruit in the boy's hand suggests the apple of discord thrown down by Eris, the goddess of strife, at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. This act prompted a chain of events which culminated in the Trojan War and, not incidentally, the death of Achilles.2
The Oberlin painting is a modello for one of a series of tapestries illustrating episodes from the life of Achilles. Between 1630 and 1635 Peter Paul Rubens designed eight subjects for this series, apparently at the instigation of his father-in-law, the tapestry merchant Daniel Fourment.3 Three more designs were added to the series by Jordaens, probably shortly after 1635 and certainly before 1642. The subjects added by Jordaens were the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, Pan Instructing the Young Achilles in Music, and Thetis and Achilles Before the Oracle.4 In keeping with Jordaens's customary practice in generating designs for woven tapestries, each of these themes would have been developed first in a series of preparatory drawings. The more detailed modello which followed, painted in oil on panel, would have been shown to potential clients, and would have also served as the basis for a full-scale cartoon painted in water- or body color on paper and used as a model by the tapestry weavers.5
Several sets of tapestries were woven from the designs created by Rubens and Jordaens by various Brussels weavers, over a period of about forty years (ca. 1640-80).6 Three weavings of Jordaens's Thetis and Achilles Before the Oracle are known: all record the central (original) portion of the Oberlin composition only, augmented by various ornamental border designs (as in the San Francisco tapestry).7
As suggested above, the central portion of Thetis and Achilles Before the Oracle was painted about 1640. The panel was subsequently enlarged on all sides by the artist, probably around 1660. While the central section displays the warm, glowing palette and fluid brushwork that mark works from Jordaens's middle years,8 the later additions reflect the muted palette, slack anatomy, and more generalized forms characteristic of the artist's late works.9 The addition of these figures, which include Mercury with his caduceus on the left and a sacrificial attendant with an ax on the right, alters the original character of the scene. Stechow hypothesized that Jordaens may have conceived this new, composite image as a depiction of the blind seer Tiresias, who prophesied the heroic deeds of the young Hercules to his mother Alcmene.10
M. E. Wieseman
Together with Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens was one of the greatest Flemish painters of the seventeenth century. He was born in Antwerp in May 1593. At the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to the painter Adam van Noort (1562-1641), who was also a teacher of Rubens. Jordaens was admitted to the Antwerp St. Luke's guild in 1615/16 as a waterschilder (tempera painter), which qualified him to paint cartoons for tapestries and wall coverings. He married Katharina van Noort, the daughter of his teacher, in 1616; the couple had three children.
Jordaens's earliest paintings are dated 1616. He was active as an independent master in Rubens's atelier by the mid 1620s, and collaborated with him on several commissions throughout the 1630s. Jordaens was active as a portraitist, history and genre painter, and designer of tapestries, and was also a printmaker and a prolific draftsman. Particularly after the deaths of Rubens and Van Dyck (in 1640 and 1641, respectively), his work was much in demand by civic, ecclesiastic, and private patrons in Antwerp and throughout Europe--notably England, Sweden, and the northern Netherlands. Jordaens's vigorous, colorful, and plastic style is characterized by a robust naturalism and vitality. He continued to paint until the end of his long life; although there was some decline in his powers at the close of his career, many of these later works are expressive and accomplished.
d'Hulst, R.-A. Jordaens Drawings (Monographs of the Nationaal Centrum voor de Plastische Kunsten van de XVIde en XVIIde Eeuw, 5). 4 vols. Brussels, London, and New York, 1974.
d'Hulst, R.-A. Jacob Jordaens. Translated by P. S. Falla. London, 1982.
d'Hulst, R.-A, Nora De Poorter et al. Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678). 2 vols. Exh. cat., Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, 1993.
Possibly identical with "de Offerande," listed among the modelli or designs for tapestries in the inventory of the collection of the tapestry merchant Michiel Wauters, Antwerp, 16 October 1679 11
Collection Arthur Holford, London
Sale London (Christie's), 29 November 1963, lot 72 (£1470)
With Frederick Mont, Inc., New York, from whom purchased in 1964
Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, 1968-69. Jacob Jordaens. 30 November - 5 January. Cat. no. 73 (as "Thetis conducting the young Achilles to the Temple").
Denucé, Jean. Inventare von Kunstsammlungen zu Antwerpen im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert. Antwerp, 1932, p. 303.
Puyvelde, Leo van. Jordaens. Paris and Brussels, 1953, pp. 158, 168.
Stechow, Wolfgang. "A Modello by Jacob Jordaens." Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 16 (1965), pp. 67-79 (reprinted in Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 23, no. 1 [Fall 1965], pp. 4-16).
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, p. 90, fig. 53.
Cavallo, Adolph S. Tapestries of Europe and of Colonial Peru in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Vol. 1. Boston, 1967, pp. 27, 122 under no. 35.
Jaffé, Michael. In Jacob Jordaens. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1969, pp. 115-16, 186, 292 ill. (as "Thetis conducting the young Achilles to the Temple").
Jaffé, Michael. "Reflections on the Jordaens Exhibition." Bulletin, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa/Galerie Nationale du Canada, Ottawa 13 (1969, pub. 1971), p. 14.
Haverkamp Begemann, Egbert. The Achilles Series (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, part 10). London, 1975, p. 78.
Bennett, Anna G. Five Centuries of Tapestry from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. San Francisco, 1976, pp. 168, 169 ill.
Nelson, Kristi A. "Jacob Jordaens as a Designer of Tapestries." Ph.D. diss., The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1979, pp. 15, 432, 435-36.
d'Hulst, R.-A. Jacob Jordaens. Translated by P. S. Falla. London, 1982, p. 305.
Bennett, Anna G. Five Centuries of Tapestry from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Rev. ed. San Francisco, 1992, pp. 184-86.
d'Hulst, R.-A. In Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678). Vol. 2, Drawings and Prints. Exh. cat., Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, 1993, p. 69.
Prior to acquisition by the museum, the paint and ground layers were detached from the original wood panel and transferred to a masonite panel, which is covered on the back by fabric and a thin wood veneer.12 A light cradle has been attached to the back of this panel. The original wood panel was composed of five members: a central section, measuring 54 x 41 cm, was expanded on all sides by strips of wood, almost certainly by the artist himself. These additions measure 12.7 cm and 5.08 cm wide by 54 cm long at top and bottom, respectively; and 17.1 cm and 17.8 cm wide by 58.8 cm high at left and right, respectively.
The paint is applied over a multilayered white ground, which appears to be thicker in the central section than on the added pieces. X-rays (taken in 1964) show two different figures beneath the present composition: a standing nude figure was originally painted beneath the figure of Thetis to the left of the altar; and a seated male figure originally appeared in the space now occupied by the two figures to the right of the altar. Traces of the latter are evident in pentimenti.
Jordaens made several changes to the central design when the peripheral panel members were added: the position of the sacrificial lamb in the immediate foreground was reversed, and a balustrade and hanging rug were added to support the two figures introduced in the top section at right, replacing the semicircular niche shown in the tapestries. Other, less significant, alterations were made to the background to integrate it with the elaborate architectural framework devised in the enlarged composition.
The painting is in good condition with some areas of moderate abrasion; inpainting is concentrated in areas of the original panel joins. The painting was surface cleaned in 1983.
1. Egbert Haverkamp Begemann (The Achilles Series [Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, part 10] [London, 1975], p. 78 and n. 23) has demonstrated that Jordaens consulted the free, expanded French translation by I. de Montlyard (Mythologie ou Explication des fables... [Paris, 1627], p. 1010) of Natale Conti's Mythologiae sive explicationis fabularum libri decem (first ed., 1551). Wolfgang Stechow ("A Modello by Jacob Jordaens," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 23, no. 1 [Fall 1965], p. 11), correctly refers to Conti as the source for Jordaens, but cites a 1605 Latin edition that incorporates a slightly different version of the event, one less closely related to Jordaens's depiction.
2. Wolfgang Stechow, "A Modello by Jacob Jordaens," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 23, no. 1 (Fall 1965), p. 11.
3. Egbert Haverkamp Begemann, The Achilles Series (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, part 10) (London, 1975), p. 15.
4. Alternatively, Adolph S. Cavallo suggests that Jordaens may have designed an entire series of tapestries, of which only these three subjects survive; see Adolph S. Cavallo, Tapestries of Europe and of Colonial Peru in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, vol. 1 (Boston, 1967), p. 124. See also Kristi A. Nelson, "Jacob Jordaens as a Designer of Tapestries" (Ph.D. diss., The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1979), p. 15. Marthe Crick Kuntziger ("La Tenture d'Achilles d'après Rubens et les tapissiers Jean et François Raes," Bulletin des Musées royaux d'art et d'histoire ser. 3, vol. 6 , esp. pp. 8-10 and 70-71) was the first to discuss Jordaens's contributions to the Achilles Series.
5. On Jordaens's working process for tapestry designs, see Kristi A. Nelson, "Jacob Jordaens as a Designer of Tapestries" (Ph.D. diss., The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1979), pp. 6-8. Other surviving modellos for Jordaens's contributions to this series are the drawn modello for the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (Orléans, Musée des Beaux-Arts, inv. no. 1716), and the painted modello for Pan Instructing the Young Achilles in Music (private collection). See R.-A. d'Hulst, Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), vol. 2, Drawings and Prints (exh. cat., Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, 1993), pp. 69-70; and Kristi A. Nelson, "Jacob Jordaens as a Designer of Tapestries" (Ph.D. diss., The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1979), pp. 429-30, 438. None of the cartoons made from Jordaens's designs for the Achilles series is known to survive.
6. Egbert Haverkamp Begemann, The Achilles Series (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, part 10) (London, 1975), pp. 71-90; also Adolph S. Cavallo, Tapestries of Europe and of Colonial Peru in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, vol. 1 (Boston, 1967), pp. 124-25; and Kristi A. Nelson, "Jacob Jordaens as a Designer of Tapestries" (Ph.D. diss., The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1979), pp. 423-40.
7. The tapestries were woven by Jan Raes, probably between 1642 and 1653 (335 x 462 cm; The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, inv. 68.23); by Geraert van Strecken, probably between 1653 and 1662 (424.5 x 460 cm; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, inv. 30.484); and by Frans van den Hecke, about 1665 (Turin, Palazzo Reale).
8. Several motifs in the central panel are also found in Jordaens's other paintings from the period; for example, the figures of the aged seer and the two acolytes are paraphrased in Paul and Barnabas Preaching at Lystra of about 1645 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum).
9. It has also been suggested that these later additions may be the work of studio assistants; see Wolfgang Stechow, "A Modello by Jacob Jordaens," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 23, no. 1 (Fall 1965), p. 6.
10. Wolfgang Stechow, "A Modello by Jacob Jordaens," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 23, no. 1 (Fall 1965), pp. 13, 16.
11. Kristi Nelson ("Jacob Jordaens as a Designer of Tapestries" [Ph.D. diss., The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1979], pp. 435-36) suggests that the Oberlin painting may have been in the following collections (all persons known to have made or authorized tapestries from this design in the seventeenth century): Collection Daniel Fourment, Antwerp, until June 1643; Collection Peter Fourment, Antwerp, until 28 April 1653; and Collection Gerard van der Strecken, Jan van Leefdael, and Hendrick Lenaerts, Brussels, 1660. Nelson admits, however, that this provenance is difficult to reconcile with the later additions to the panel made by the artist; nor is it certain that the tapestry weavers would have been in possession of the painted modello as well as the paper cartoon for the design.
12. See also Wolfgang Stechow, "A Modello by Jacob Jordaens," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 23, no. 1 (Fall 1965), pp. 6-7.