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Work Il Contento: Jupiter Ordering Mercury to Carry off Fortune

Department of Prints and Drawings: 17th century

'Contento' : Jupiter ordonne à Mercure d'enlever le dieu "Plaisir" aux humains

RMN-Grand Palais - Photo T. Le Mage

Prints and Drawings
17th century

Author(s):
Grollemund Hélène

This very fine sheet is the first known preparatory drawing for the painted composition on which Elsheimer expended the greatest effort, in around 1607, and regarded as his masterwork: Il Contento. The painting, now in Edinburgh (National Gallery of Scotland), was preceded by at least three preparatory drawings, one also in Edinburgh, the other two in the Louvre. The second Louvre drawing (INV 18657) is thought to have been executed just before the painting.

A picaresque theme

The scene is taken from Mateo Aleman's picaresque novel Vida y hechos del picaro Guzman de Alfarache, published in Madrid in 1599. Its first translation into Italian was published in Venice in 1606. An artist who went to Venice at the end of the century and had been living in Rome since 1600 thus could well have used it as a source. In Chapter 7 of Book One, the hero tells how Jupiter sent Mercury to earth to kidnap the god Contento, on whom men had heaped too many honors. However, Elsheimer's drawing departs slightly from this story: it is a goddess and not a god who is carried off by Mercury, despite the efforts of those on the ground to retain her. This difference can be explained by the beginning of Chapter 7 of Aleman's novel, which talks of the Egyptians' mistake in adoring Fortune in the shape of a goddess. The same fable had been recounted by earlier Italian Renaissance writers, such as Leon Battista Alberti (between 1443 and 1450) and Antonio Francesco Doni (in 1562).

A dynamic composition

In this first drawing, Elsheimer has used a near-pyramidal composition: a long diagonal line goes from the couples on the right, through the figures trying to hold on to the goddess carried off by Mercury, to the upper left where Jupiter can be seen on an eagle. The dynamism of this line is counterbalanced by the strong horizontal line of the animals about to be sacrificed, the figures on the left reaching out to the goddess, and the embracing couples, who illustrate the atmosphere of luxury and refinement associated with Contento. The couples disappeared in the second sketch, being replaced by a naked woman in the final version. In the third drawing, the upward movement is suggested only by the momentum of the crowd on the right. On the left, the immobility of the stupefied spectators echoes the vertical lines of the temple columns.

Inspired by antiquity

The Louvre sheet has been stylistically linked to a Frieze with Satyrs, Women, and Children in the British Museum (London). Although its composition and style recall antique friezes, the drawing has greater affinity with an engraving of a sacrificial Roman procession by Cornelis Cort (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale Albert l), from a drawing by Lambert Lombard. One of the couples could have been inspired by Agostino Carracci's engraving of Requited Love (Louvre, B 119). The overall structure of the painting stayed faithful to the drawing, but the style changed in the last preparatory stage (second Louvre drawing). The wash that suggests shadows and light proves that Elsheimer, like Tintoretto before him and Poussin after him, used wax figures. This method facilitated the rigorous drawing, the interplay of planes, and contrasts of light and shade that can be discerned in this first study.

Bibliography

Andrews Keith, Adam Elsheimer : Il Contento, Edimburg, Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Scotland, 1971.
Andrews Keith, Adam Elsheimer : Paintings, Drawings, Prints, 1977, Oxford, Phaidon, n 19, pp. 149-150, n 43-45, pp. 161-162.
Starcky Emmanuel, Inventaire général des dessins des Écoles du Nord. 8, Écoles allemande, des anciens Pays-Bas, flamande, hollandaise et suisse : XVe-XVIIIe siècle : supplément aux inventaires publiés par Frits Lugt et Louis Demonts, musée du Louvre, Cabinet des dessins, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1988, notice 33.

Technical description

  • Adam Elsheimer (Frankfurt, 1578-Rome, 1610)

    Il Contento: Jupiter Ordering Mercury to Carry off Fortune

    C. 1607

  • Pen and brown ink, and gray wash over a black chalk sketch

    H. 23.8 cm; W. 32.9 cm

  • Count Charles Bourgevin Vialart de Saint Morys collection; confiscated as emigré's property; deposited with the Louvre, 1796-97

    3933953

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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