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Jacob Jordaens (Antwerp 1593-1678)
Jacob Jordaens (Antwerp 1593-1678)

Circe and Odysseus

Jacob Jordaens (Antwerp 1593-1678)
Circe and Odysseus
oil on panel, stamped with the Antwerp hand and the panel-maker's mark of Gillis Aertsen
29 1/8 x 41 7/8 in. (74 x 106.3 cm.)
We are grateful to Thomas Art Conservation for providing the following condition report:
This picture is in good condition overall. The horizontally grained wood panel support is
comprised of four boards and retains its original thickness and bevels on the reverse, as well as
a series of stamps: the Antwerp joiners’ guild marks showing pair of hands above a castle and
the monogram of panel maker Gillis Aertson. Patterns of discoloration on the reverse suggest
the panel originally had two vertical crossbattens. Strips of wood have been glued to the
reverse to repair the bottom join and a portion of the top join, and a crack is visible only from
the back towards the top left (when viewed from the back). The panel displays a moderate
convex vertical warp, and a curved liner has been made for the frame to properly support the
panel. Much of the paint film is well preserved. Losses appear to be located along the joins,
where narrow strips of restoration are visible under ultraviolet illumination. Isolated areas of
restoration have been somewhat liberally applied to compensate for thinning in some of the
upper glazes, including in the green glazes used in garments, where thick strokes of
restoration create stark contours along the folds. Retouching has also been applied to some
brown passages that display normal age-related increased transparency in the paint and/or
where thinly applied brushwork is meant to have variations in opacity. The purplish-maroon
textiles have been loosely glazed with more than one campaign of retouching, suppressing the
modeling of the forms. Retouching in the sky has altered in tonality over time, imparting an
unevenness to this passage. The varnish is glossy and even, and slightly discolored. While the
painting can be displayed in its current state, cleaning and a new restoration to more carefully
knit together broken glazes without concealing the original paint would improve the
appearance overall.
Private collection, Europe, until c. 2002, when acquired by the present owner.

Condition Report

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Lot Essay

Jacob Jordaens stands beside Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck as one of the most important Flemish artists of the 17th century and a defining figure of northern Baroque painting. During his long career in Antwerp, Jordaens devoted much of his attention to the production of designs for tapestries. He is thought to have designed as many as eight full tapestry cycles, and numerous sketches, cartoons, and finished oil paintings related to this enterprise have survived.

This dramatic, fluidly painted panel depicts Odysseus’ encounter with the sorceress Circe as told by Homer in Book X of the Odyssey. The meeting of Odysseus and Circe is one of many inauspicious episodes in Homer’s account of the hero’s adventurous return to his native Ithaca after the fall of Troy. Shipwrecked on an island, Odysseus and his men fell subject to Circe, who transformed some of the hero’s unwitting companions into swine by feeding them a magic potion. Odysseus, who was forewarned by Mercury and protected by an antidote, overpowered the sorceress and forced her to return his men to their human shapes.

Jordaens has distilled the critical moment of this encounter with dramatic flair: Odysseus grips a seated Circe by the front of her garment and threatens her with his sword, which he holds high above his head. In the background, Circe’s handmaidens spill out of a doorway, clearly as terrified as the sorceress herself. To the right, two pigs (presumably Odysseus’ transformed companions) appear beneath a beautifully articulated architectural setting where a pair of male caryatids flank a fountain with a nude female sculpture.

The composition relates to one of the earliest tapestry series woven after Jordaens’ designs, The Story of Odysseus, of c. 1630-1635. Though the imagery has clearly been adapted, several of the works from the series borrow elements from the present picture: the Circe Transforming Odysseus’ Men into Swine repeats the motifs of the two caryatids supporting a loggia and the stance of the ‘man of twists and turns’ in the Odysseus Threatening Circe tapestry (fig. 1) relates to that in the present work.

Jordaens made two other painted versions of the present composition on canvas, both of which also relate to the tapestry series (formerly Palitz collection, New York and Kunstmuseum, Basel). A preparatory sketch for the two pigs at right also survives (fig. 2). Differences among the three painted versions suggest that Jordaens may have developed the composition in stages. Most notably, in the present painting and the Basel version, the two putti seen in the ex-Palitz work have been eliminated and the small niche has been transformed into a portico crowded with beautifully-posed stone figures. Jordaens also made several subtle adjustments to Odysseus’ position across the three versions. While the hero is observed from behind in the ex-Palitz painting and in the present version, he appears from the side in the Basel canvas, as if moving across the pictorial plane. In the present work – the only one of the three versions painted on panel – Jordaens intensifies the encounter between Odysseus and Circe by having the hero pull the sorceress towards him by her dress, a feature unique to this version.

As compared to the highly finished ex-Palitz and Basel paintings, this Circle and Odysseus displays a rapid, sketch-like quality that in various passages reveals notable pentimenti where the artist was clearly reworking the composition as he painted. In particular, the pose and position of both caryatids have been significantly altered by the artist, who continued to revise and refine his design directly on the panel.

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