This painting came up for sale earlier this month at Hargesheimer in Düsseldorf (March 11th 2021, lot 1216). It caught my eye. It’s on a standard size 21 x 17 inch panel, and it looks late Sixteenth Century. Can’t tell what wood the panel is because it was painted all over brown on the back, with a German inscription in red describing it as ‘Old Netherlandish, restored in 1864.’
It was catalogued as Flemish Mannerist, first half 1600s, Hercules puts Cacus to death, oil on panel 53 x 42 cm. It sold for 6,500 Euros. The scene is the battle in a cave between Hercules and the fire-breathing monster Cacus. It relates to the 1588 woodcut Hercules and Cacus by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), a Dutch artist of many talents living and working in Haarlem. The one I’ve illustrated is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
It’s for someone else to explore whether this is a copy after Goltzius’s print, and it looks an early one if it is, or by Goltzius himself. In which case it would be his earliest-known painting. Tho if it was by Goltzius he’s have to be copying his own woodcut because it’s the same way round as the print. As far as we know Goltzius didn’t take up painting until around 1600, in his early forties. His style by then is completely different, influenced by a trip to Italy in 1590/91. Goltzius did Hercules and Cacus again in 1613, working in the style we now call the Baroque but back then they called modern art.
Annibale Carracci’s 1601/2 ‘Domine Quo Vadis?’ is a good example of the new style that Goltzius would’ve seen. Goltzius visited Bologna twice on his trip to Italy, at a time when the Carracci academy was the place to learn modern art, and Annibale, his brother Agostino and cousin Ludovico were all in the city working on a great fresco cycle ‘The History of the Founding of Rome’ in the Palazzo Magnani.
Baroque painters aimed to produce something, dramatic, dignified and more realistic than before. The contorted pose of the figure you can see coming through the cave mouth at the left of Goltzius’s print of Hercules and Cacus had become a cliche of Mannerism, the late sixteenth century fashion they were trying to overturn. The soldier on the left of Annibale Carracci’s 1583 ‘Butchers’ Shop’ at Christ Church reaching into his purse is a deliberate caricature of mannerism compared with the butcher standing next to him.
If modern art around 1600 was only about realism it would be straightforward. It was also about the restrained, dignified classical ideal, rediscovered by looking again at classical sculpture. The idealised Quo Vadis and the grittily realistic Butchers’ Shop are both equally Baroque paintings. This is a split to modern eyes. Velazquez notes it at the time in his 1628/9 painting known either as The Triumph of Bacchus or ‘The Drunks’ in the Prado. Is the setting Arcadia or the village fiesta? Or both at the same time?
Goltzius had already been avant-garde the first time. Back in the 1580s he was a leader of the Northern Mannerism His friend Karel van Mander, whose Schilderboek is the first biography of Netherlandish artists, introduced him to drawings by Bartolommeus Spranger, Court painter to Emperor Rudolf in Prague. Spranger’s mythological subjects with nude figures in ‘complex erotic poses’ ( Getty) directly influenced and inspired ‘Venus and Mars surprised by Vulcan’, the 1585 work that made Goltzius’s name when it he published it in 1585.
Before ‘Venus and Mars surprised by Vulcan’ Goltzius was best known in Haarlem as a genius for making copies of old master prints, and original compositions in the style of great names. This was still his star turn in the 1590s when he produced a series of The Early Life of the Virgin where each print was a recognisable tribute to another painter. ‘Venus and Mars’ was emphatically his own invention, and the inscription on the print says that he designed, engraved and published it himself.
Goltzius is influenced by Spranger’s drawing style but his figures are far more more active and substantial, compared with those in Spranger’s ‘Neptune and Amphitrite’ in the Met.
Goltzius’s preparatory drawing for ‘Venus and Mars surprised by Vulcan’ is in the Getty Museum. There’s a lot going on and real space and movement in it.
Goltzius’s drawing shows how an engraver can be the painter’s equal in design and execution. It is significant that the next turning point in his career would be his collaboration with a painter, Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem. The two of them, together with Karel van Mander, formed an influential group referred to as the Haarlem Academy, pioneering a new style, and bringing mannerism to the Netherlands when mannerism was modern painting. But that is for next time.