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Hermes at Calypso’s Table
(Jacob Jordaens)

Description

JORDAENS, Hermes at Calypso’s Table

The Story of Odysseus has been regarded as one of Jacob Jordaens’ earliest forays into tapestry design and dated on stylistic grounds from the 1630s. This date, due in large part to Roger D’Hulst, has recently been challenged.  A set of the Scenes from Country Life at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, was woven by a leading Brussels tapissier, Jacob Geubels II, who died c.1629, and had probably been ordered by the 2nd Earl of Devonshire who had died the previous year (Fig.6).  If this were indeed the case, it would suggest for reasons of style that most scenes in the Story of Odysseus had been designed somewhat earlier. Some forty years before, Emile Duverger was already advocating an early start to Jordaens’ involvement with the tapestry business based on the record made in the 18th century of the date 1620 on a tapestry cartoon attributed to him, a claim no longer verifiable as the cartoon has not survived. He then went on to propose that the set of the Story of Odysseus, known to have been ordered from the same Jacob Geubels on behalf of the son of the King of Poland in 1624, should be identified with that by Jordaens with which we are concerned (Fig. 7).  The visit to the Southern Netherlands of the cultivated prince (1595-1648), who became Wladislav IV Vasa when elected king in 1632, received great publicity; he was much honoured by the Archduchess Isabella, then Governor of the Netherlands, who commissioned Rubens to paint his portrait.  But this proposal too must remain hypothetical as no details about the commission are known. More fully documented is the legal dispute that arose following Geubels’s failure to deliver the tapestry set as promised in 1626. There is no record of the set’s existence in Poland and quite possibly it was never completed, let alone delivered.    Thus if Duverger’s proposal is put aside, it has to be admitted that like much of Jacques Jordaens’ early work, the identity of the patron of the Story of Odysseus – the dealer or weaver who commissioned it – remains unknown; indeed only two sets are extant, one partial and woven by an anonymous shop the other from the Van der Strecken and Van Leefdael looms and acquired by Carlo Emanuele (Fig.8). We presume that the commission must have come sometime perhaps through his growing reputation and his claims as a waterschilder who had perhaps assisted Rubens c. 1625-27 in the preparation of the Decius Mus tapestries. In this respect, too, is relevant the supposed policy of  the Archducal couple Albert and Isabella, after the declaration of the Twelve Years Truce in the war against the United Provinces in 1609, to stimulate the enterprise of the Brussels tapissiers in seeking out new tapestry designers.

 

In fact the subject settled on for Jacob Jordaens was not novel, for it had been well rehearsed in tapestry before: Homer’s Odyssey was the subject of a popular series woven in Brussels and designed by Michiel Coxcie (1499-1592). Jan van der Straet, called Stradanus (1523-1605) designed another and perhaps the hugely ambitious and spectacular decoration at Fontainebleau of the long destroyed Galerie d’Ulysse by Primaticcio (1504-1570) was talked about before it became internationally known through Theodoor van Thulden’s engravings, published in 1633. Jacob Jordaens did not have to read Greek to know the epic, for it had been translated into Dutch in the 1560s. Jacob Jordaens would be catering for the tastes of a highly educated audience by selecting evocative incidents in the myth, which he could illustrate in a dramatic and comprehensible manner. As it turned out, not all the subjects he chose seem to have been included in the series, for there are adventures concerning Odysseus depicted by Jacob Jordaens for which no tapestries are known.

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Of the subjects that were woven, two were particularly complex and ambitious, but when Carlo Emmanuele and his wife planned the room for which they were destined both were mutilated to fit the available space. Telemachus leading Theoklymenos to his Mother was divided into two separate pieces, while about a third of the composition showing Odysseus in the Court of Alcinous (Fig.10) was omitted. Hermes at Calypso’s Table as planned by Jacques Jordaens had fewer figures and was less complex in its setting, but its composition too was reduced in order to accommodate the requirements of the Duke and Duchess.

Although Odysseus is not present, this scene, the penultimate of the hero’s lengthy staging posts on his return to his native land, is the first that directly concerned his predicament to be described in Homer’s epic. The hero had washed up alone on the Isle of Ogygia after his ship was wrecked in a storm wrought by an implacably hostile Poseidon. Odysseus related how the ‘fair-tressed… guileful Calypso, a dread goddess, and [with whom]… no one either of gods or mortals has anything to do’ had taken him to her home and, he continued, ‘she said she would make me immortal and ageless all my days; but she could never persuade the heart in my breast. There for seven years I remained continually, and always with my tears I kept wet the immortal clothes which Calypso gave me’. At this point Zeus the Thunderer, at Pallas Athene’s behest, intervened and commanded the divine messenger Hermes to tell Calypso that she must release Odysseus so that he could return to his native land and his wife Penelope. Homer describes the scene Hermes found when he reached Calypso’s domain: ‘…he came to a great cave, wherein dwelt the fair-tressed nymph… A great fire was burning in the hearth, and far over the isle spread the fragrance of split cedar and citronwood, as they burned… Round about the cave grew a luxuriant wood, alder and poplar and sweet smelling cypress, in which long-winged birds made their nests …And right there above the hollow cave ran trailing a garden vine… There even an immortal, who chanced to come, might gaze and marvel, and delight his soul’.

At the ensuing interview Calypso bewailed the envy of the gods ‘seeing that ye begrudge goddesses that they should mate with men openly, if any takes a mortal as her own bed-fellow’. The ‘great-hearted’ Odysseus was of course absent ‘for he sat weeping on the shore, in his accustomed place, racking his heart with tears and groans and griefs…’ Jordaens, perhaps attracted by the description of the idyllic island and the flickering light in the interior of the cave, depicted the moment described by Homer when the goddess set before Hermes ‘a table laden with ambrosia [food of the gods] and mixed the red nectar. So he drank and ate…’

 

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From Homer’s delightful and evocative account, Jacques Jordaens was inspired to depict a table scene very much in the idiom of the Dutch Caravaggesques active in the 1620s. Although the text required dignity and restraint, his Hermes at Calypso’s Table bears comparison with such a works as Gerrit van Honthorst’s Concert of c. 1626-27 in the Borghese  with its sharp lighting from the side. Of course there is none of the ‘bravo’ atmosphere evident in so many of such gatherings created in Utrecht, but Jacques Jordaens, who as we have seen never visited Rome, would have learnt Caravaggesque elements in Rubens’ art of the previous decade and would have been inspired by the lighting in Caravaggio’s own Madonna of the Rosary, which was acquired by Rubens and his friends and installed in the Dominican church in Antwerp by c. 1620. `

 

The setting at table would have appealed by striking a cord with the Jacob Jordaens’s recent popular series of The Satyr and the Peasant Family illustrating Aesop’s moral fable warning against inconsistency or as portrayed those who blow hot or cold. A large rendering (with The Matthiesen Gallery, London, 1993) with its numerous pentimenti shows him developing his ideas c. 1616-18,  which culminated in a group of masterpieces, of which one at Cassel has been dated c. 1623-25. A starting point for Jacob Jordaens may have been a print by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (1557-1629).  But he was to reject the high viewpoint and although he first conceived the scene as an upright in which the ceiling of a barn is depicted, Jacques Jordaens preferred the challenge of describing it from below and close- up in such a way that the legs of the furniture and the protagonists require disentangling. Jacob Jordaens chose bright, slanting lighting with shadows and rearranged the protagonists in the varying versions so as to find different ways to express the effect of the words of the truth-speaking satyr. About twenty years later the artist’s interest in the potential of gatherings at table was revived in his renderings of the The King Drinks and As the old sing, so the young pipe, the hilarious scenes of family life for which Jacob Jordaens is famous.

For the treatment in the Odysseus series, Jacques Jordaens may have referred to the print after Rubens’ Supper at Emmaus of 1611 by Willem van Swanenburg (1581-1612), the prototype of which is lost (Fig.11).  In particular, Jacques Jordaens may have been struck by the disciple seen from behind, who leans forward as Christ reveals himself. This was to be the inspiration for his formulation of Hermes, and the numerous pentimenti in the figure show the amount of trouble he expended to obtain the most expressive result. Of prime concern was his desire to convey the god’s calm conduct of the interview, which would not have been conveyed by the tense posture of the disciple’s right arm. Jacques Jordaens altered this, perhaps with the gesture of Paris’ right arm in Rubens’ earlier Judgement of Paris in the London National Gallery in mind (Fig.12).  Jacques Jordaens’ interest in the rear view of the seated pose resurfaced later when he considered the theme of Jupiter and Mercury in the House of Philemon and Baucis,  where the loose wings on Mercury’s hat are similar. (Fig.13).

At about the same time, the pose was adopted for Pirithous in a compositional sketch for a Banquet of Achelous (c. 1630 or earlier Fig.14) . At the other end of the table, beside Achelous, are two women who relate closely to those beside Calypso. The placement of the servant’s arms pouring wine, especially her right arm, recalls the study by Rubens  for the daughter in his Lot and his Daughters, once at Blenheim and recently sold at auction. Jacques Jordaens may have been a familiar visitor in Rubens’ workshop when the Lot was painted,  c. 1614, as is suggested by his copy after the Lot and his Family fleeing Sodom (National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo). Calypso’s servant balancing a basket on her hip, her face in lost profile, is a pose probably also inspired by a supposed, but not extant,  Rubens life-study similar to that for Lot’s daughter pouring wine, while the position of the left arm is already suggested in one of the servants in Lot’s train. Conspicuous is the standing servant bringing a basket of bread to the table, her face in half-shadow. Her pose brings Titian’s portrait of Lavinia with a tray of fruit to mind, a version of which was said to be in a private Antwerp collection about 20 years later.  But to search here for conscious borrowing in emulation is unnecessary as the pose nearly repeats that used for the maid in Jacques Jordaens’ earlier portrayal of himself with his parents and siblings in the Hermitage (Fig.15).

Behind the group of three by the table is a fourth servant, her face lit by the fire in the cave. Jacques Jordaens would have found in Rubens’ work of about 1615 two paintings where candlelight threw light and shadow on a face: Judith with the Head of Holofernes in Braunschweig (Fig.16) and Night Scene with an old Woman and Child in the Mauritshuis.  The younger Jacques Jordaens continued to explore the play of artificial light in the Maidservant with a Basket of Fruit,  which repeats the central motif of a tapestry design for one of the already discussed Scenes of Country Life.

In Jacques Jordaens’ earliest existing painting of 1616, the Adoration of the Shepherds,  the artist juggled with two different artificial light sources, emulating Rubens who in his earlier Samson and Delilah  had manipulated four. However at the entrance to Calypso’s cave Jacques Jordaens was content to contrast the strong outdoor light flooding low onto the protagonists with the lurid glow from the darkness within. This natural light emphasizes the muscled back of Hermes, contrasting it with the smooth female forms and in particular the impassive and beautiful, rose-tinted face of the goddess, as yet unmoved, as Hermes raises his wine glass to her in acknowledgement of her hospitality.

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In the widening scope of pictorial representation in Antwerp at the time when Jacques Jordaens was embarking on his career, still-life and animal specialists began to come to the fore. It remains debateable as to whether Jacques Jordaens ever turned to still-life specialists for the fruit and flowers that were to enhance his renderings of abundance and fertility, but his protean genius embraced the depictions of animals early on, and the alert goat standing in the entrance to the cave must be one of the artist’s earliest treatments of what was to become a favourite creature. Above, a parrot and peacock are also harbingers of Jacques Jordaens’ well-observed menagerie. In the treatment of the bread and fruit brought to the feast, Jacques Jordaens shows himself to have mastered the still-life idiom established by the great Frans Snyders (1579-1657).

For the alert viewer the two exotic birds might have added associations that provided further accents to Homer’s story. In the parrot could be read references to both the eloquence of Hermes and maybe the love harboured by Calypso , while in the peacock would have been seen the emblem of the goddess Hera, protectress of marriage.

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Hermes at Calypso’s Table by Jacques Jordaens of c. 1625-35 has only recently come to light and thus has not been discussed in studies on the artist. It is at once mysterious in atmosphere and imbued with a sense of potential drama, a striking addition to those works Jacques Jordaens executed both to accompany and be part of his preparations for one of his earliest essays in the tapestry business. In this case, it takes the composition a step further, following his execution of an oil sketch that was last recorded in the Reimann collection in Stensbygaard (Fig.17), working out and clarifying ideas adumbrated there.  Nonetheless pentimenti, most notably in the profile and the fall of Hermes’ prominent cloak, point to the typically rapid, thoughtful energy that Jacques Jordaens brought to his art, encouraged no doubt by his observation of Rubens’ working practice (Figs.18a to i). Of the eight or so other paintings that fall into the same procedural category for this series, all of different sizes and/or supports, five are in public collections, one is on public permanent loan, another is a studio version and the whereabouts of the last  is unknown.

 

The painting should not be seen as executed as part of the process of the actual production of the tapestry. Rather, we imagine the weaver and/or dealer concerned with commissioning the series studying it as a finished sample of the prospective appearance of the much larger tapestry. For Jacques Jordaens there was the further advantage that it could later be sold as an independent work of art. Thus his painting of Odysseus and Polyphemus was also to become available and Rubens was to acquire and retain it in his collection until his death.

 

Measurements
116 x 154 cm
Type
Oil on canvas
Provenance

In the possession  of a noble Italian family since the early 19th century;

Carlo Graf von Rex, Florence;

Sold Christie’s, London, 9 July 2015, lot 17.

 

Literature

Jacques Jordaens, Homer, Hesiod & Aesop: Myth, Fable & Basic Instincts, Catalogue to be published in 2018, The Matthiesen Gallery, London, 2018.

Where is It?
Acquired by a Private Collector 2019
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Subject
Mythological
School
Netherlandish - Flemish