Despite being criticised in the 19th Century for using his native Flemish landscapes instead of classical scenes, and for his lack of draughtsmanship, Rubens has since been hailed as a master of colour and spirit.
He was so captivated by the story of the Judgement of Paris that he painted it at least eight times, and it has become one of the great works of Western Art.
The painting overflows with vivacity and eroticism. It is a rich feast of colour and form that has been admired for centuries. The theme is from Ancient Greek mythology. The fairest of three goddesses – Juno (Hera in the Greek version), Venus (Aphrodite) and Minerva (Athena) – will receive a golden apple. But who dare judge them and pronounce one more beautiful than the others?
Jupiter (Zeus) decides the handsome shepherd prince Paris must do it, and it is him we see in the painting, golden apple held casually in hand, as the goddesses pose before him.
Mercury (Hermes), the messenger of the gods, stands next to Paris, and Cupid is gathering up the goddesses’ discarded robes. There are many pastoral elements to the painting; the grazing sheep, the quiet dog, Paris’ rustic clothing. But, as is typical with Rubens’ paintings, the whole scene is heaving with symbolism.
Paris was reluctant to incur the goddesses’ wrath by choosing one, so they offered him gifts. Juno promised to make him king of a great empire and Minerva vowed to give him wisdom and that he would win every battle he undertook.
However, Paris awarded the golden apple to Venus after she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman on earth. That woman was Helen, and her and Paris’ love affair was to bring about the 10-year-long Trojan War.
This is why the Fury Alecto is in the sky, a portent of the horrors that are to come, thunderclouds already gathering in the bucolic blue sky. This version of Judgement of Paris is the one that hangs in the National Gallery in London, and is probably the best known. It was completed between 1632-35 and is a definitive piece of Flemish Baroque art.
The centre of the picture is the curvaceous figures of the three goddesses. With Venus in the middle and Juno on the right, Rubens manages to present his idealised image of the naked female form from three angles; front, side and back.
The figures are depicted as they undress for Paris’ perusal with no hint of shame or embarrassment. The model for Venus is thought be Rubens’ second wife, Helene Fourment, who was 37-years his junior, and to whom he was reportedly devoted. The goddesses appear with their distinguishing attributes, an example of how Rubens filled his paintings with signs and imagery.
Minerva, goddess of war and wisdom, is seen with her helmet and shield, which reflects an image of the gorgon Medusa. Above the scene, her owl – a symbol of wisdom – observes proceedings.
Venus, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility, is accompanied by Cupid, the god of love, and has pearls in her ears, a nod to the myth of her birth, arising from the sea.
Juno, the wife of Jupiter, has brought her peacock, which is hissing angrily at Paris’ dog.
In Hermes’ hand is his caduceus – a staff with two snakes winding around it. Watching the whole scene from above are three lascivious satyrs, thrilled to be seeing three naked goddesses.
Rubens was a brilliant colourist, as can be seen here with the bright blue of the distant sky already being overshadowed by the thunderous grey of the clouds of war. The goddesses are bathed in light, their skin shining amid the dark greens of the trees and the deep red of Minerva’s fur cloak, which is captured just before she drops it to the ground.
It is not known who originally commissioned the work, but its owners included the Duc d’Orleans and the Duc de Richelieu, before it was acquired by the National Gallery in London in 1844.