Pier Francesco Mola (Italian, Coldrerio 1612 - 1666 Rome)
Mercury Putting Argus to Sleep, ca. 1645-55
Oil on canvas
23 1/8 x 39 1/8 in. (58.7 x 99.4 cm)
Kress Study Collection, 1961
An Italian Baroque painter active in Rome, Venice, and Bologna, Pier Francesco Mola is best known for small easel paintings depicting scenes from the Bible or classical mythology, such as the Oberlin painting. He also completed several important public commissions for frescoes and altarpieces.
This painting illustrates the tale of Mercury and Argus from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Given its small size, the picture was undoubtedly made for a private collector, rather than to fulfill a public commission. The erudite, classical subject matter of the work is typical of Mola's paintings for collectors; comparable examples include two other versions of Mercury and Argus1, as well as two paintings of Echo and Narcissus.2
A small painted study of a male head, formerly on the London art market, may be related to the head of Argus in the present work.3 Mola also represented the myth of Mercury and Argus in an etching.4 Cocke has suggested that the present painting is based on thaat print,5 but that is unlikely since both the poses of the figures and the disposition of the trees are quite different in the two works.
The style of the painting reveals Mola's eclectic borrowing from the masters of Renaissance and Baroque art. Cocke has compared the composition to Annibale Carracci's Bacchus and Silenus, now in the National Gallery, London.6 The rich, dark, warm palette, on the other hand, points to Venetian influences (specifically Bassano and Veronese), as well as Guercino. Other works by Mola exhibit the same stylistic influences and an early biographer, Passeri, specified that Bassano's style was an important model for the artist.7 Denis Mahon has noted in the warm, golden light of the Oberlin painting the influence of Poussin's mythological works from the late 1620s and early '30s.8
Because of the scarcity of firmly dated works by the artist before his return to Rome in 1647, the chronology of his oeuvre has proved difficult to establish. Cocke dates the present work around 1645,9 Harris argues for a slightly later date,10 and Rudolph suggests it was made around 1650-55.11
Pier Francesco Mola was the son of an architect, Giovanni Battista Mola (ca. 1588-1665), who worked primarily in Rome and also wrote a guidebook to the city. The family moved permanently from Coldrerio to Rome in 1616 and Pier Francesco lived in the city for the rest of his life, with the exception of two extended periods, 1633-40 and 1641-47. During these years the artist worked in Venice and Bologna, primarily producing small pictures for private collectors. From 1647 until his death in 1666, Mola resided in Rome and the majority of his works from that period are large, religious or civic commissions. His initial training was with Giuseppe Cesari (Cavaliere d'Arpino); his first documented paintings are frescoes in the Cappella Nuova of the church of the Madonna del Carmelo in Coldrerio, painted in 1641-42. Sometime before 1647 he is known to have been an assistant to the Bolognese painter Francesco Albani (1578-1660) in Bologna. Mola enjoyed critical and commercial success, especially in the latter half of his career, and he was elected president of the Roman artists' association, the Accademia di San Luca, in 1662. He died in Rome in 1666.
Cocke, Richard. Pier Francesco Mola. Oxford, 1972.
Harris, Ann Sutherland. In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. Vol. 21. London and New York, 1996, pp. 806-9.
Collection Armando Sabatello, Rome
With Ars Antiqua, New York
Collection Samuel H. Kress, New York (1950)
Given to the museum in 1961
Kenwood, London County Council, 1962. An American University Collection: Works of Art from the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio. 3 May - 30 October. Cat. no. 27.
Detroit Institute of Arts, 1965. Art in Italy, 1600-1700. 6 April - 9 May. Cat. no. 18.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1966. Treasures from the Allen Memorial Art Museum. 21 July - 11 September. No cat.
Lugano, Museo Cantonale d'Arte, 1989. Pier Francesco Mola 1612-1666. 23 September - 19 November (also shown at Rome, Museo Capitolino). Cat. no. I.15.
Stechow, Wolfgang. "The Samuel H. Kress Study Collection, Catalogue." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 19 (1961-62), p. 39, no. 8.
N[icolson], B[enedict]. "Current and Forthcoming Exhibitions." The Burlington Magazine 104 (1962), p. 310, ill. fig. 39.
Mahon, Denis. "Stock-Taking in Seicento Studies." Apollo 82 (1965), p. 378.
Roli, Renato. Il Classicismo. Milan, 1966, pl. 11.
Cocke, Richard. Pier Francesco Mola. Oxford, 1972, pp. 14-15, 18, 51, cat. no. 30.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, Italian Schools, XVI-XVIII Century. London, 1973, p. 69, no. K1706.
Rudolph, Stella. "Pier Francesco Mola: la monografia di R. Cocke e nuovi contributi." Arte illustrata 5 (1972), p. 354.
Harris, Ann Sutherland. "Review of Richard Cocke's Pier Francesco Mola." The Art Bulletin 56 (1974), p. 290.
Schlier, Erich. "Pier Francesco Mola a S. Maria della Quercia." Antichità viva 16, no. 6 (1977), p. 20.
Genty, Jean. Pier Francesco Mola pittore. Lugano, 1974, p. 43.
Pier Francesco Mola 1612-1666. Exh. cat., Museo Cantonale d'Arte, Lugano, 1989, cat. no. I.15, ill. p. 167.
Harris, Ann Sutherland. In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. Vol. 21. London and New York, 1996, p. 807.
Finaldi, Gabriele. Discovering the Italian Baroque: The Denis Mahon Collection. Exh. cat., The National Gallery, London, 1997, p. 122.
The work is in generally good condition. The oil paint has been quickly applied and worked wet-in-wet over what may be a red-brown ground that shoows through the paint layer in certain areas. Slight brushstrokes are visible along the right edge, and in the sky. Minor losses along the lower edge have been filled, and the picture has been lined onto a open-weave canvas using glue-paste adhesive. The lining has caused some flattening of the impasto in the dark tones, and there is pinprick blistering in the dark passages at the upper left and in the middle right, possibly from excessive heat during the lining process. The varnish has darkened slightly. The original tacking margins have been trimmed.
1. Oil on canvas, 31.2 x 40.8 cm, London, Denis Mahon Collection; and oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm, Berlin, Staatliche Museen, inv. 383.
2. Oil on canvas, 26 x 19 cm, Corehouse, Lanark, E. A. Cranston Collection; and oil on canvas, 50 x 39 cm, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, inv. A.872.
3. Oil on canvas, 33 x 53.3 cm; reproduced in Richard Cock, Pier Francesco Mola(Oxford, 1972), p. 49, cat. no. 21, pl. 21.
4. B. 6; reproduced in The Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 42, ed. John T. Spike (New York, 1981), p. 182.
5. Richard Cocke, Pier Francesco Mola(Oxford, 1972), p. 51.
6. Oil on panel, 35.4 x 84.2 cm, London, The National Gallery, inv. NG94; Richard Cocke, Pier Francesco Mola, Oxford, 1972, p. 15.
7. See G. B. Passeri, Vite de' pittori, scultori ed architetti dall'anno 1641 sino all'anno 1673, edited by Jacob Hess, Leipzig and Vienna, 1934, p. 368.
8. Denis Mahon, "Stock-Taking in Seicento Studies," Apollo 82 (1965), p. 386.
9. Richard Cocke, Pier Francesco Mola (Oxford, 1972), p. 51.
10. Ann Sutherland Harris, "Review of Richard Cocke's Pier Francesco Mola," The Art Bulletin 56 (1974), p. 290; idem, "Pier Francesco Mola," in The Dictionary of Art, ed. Jane Turner (London and New York, 1996), vol. 21, p. 807.
11. Stella Rudolph, "Pier Francesco Mola: la monografia di R. Cocke e nuovi contributi," Arte illustrata 5 (1972), p. 364.