This atmospheric and delicately executed landscape depicts an episode from the myth of Latona (Leto in Greek), an important figure in classical mythology as the mother of the divine twins, Apollo and Diana (Artemis). Ovid recounts in his Metamorphoses (Book VI, verses 317-381), the story of Latona and the Lycian peasants. A daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe, Latona was of such beauty that she was at first concealed by her parents, but caught the eye of Jupiter, becoming one of his first loves. The outraged Juno, consort of Jupiter and Queen of the Gods, punished the now-pregnant Latona by ordaining that all lands shun her, causing her to wander desperately in search of a place to give birth. Finally, the floating island of Delos, which had no fixed place on the Earth (and as such could not be truly called a ‘land’), took pity on Latona as a fellow wanderer, and allowed her to give birth on its shores – the god Apollo subsequently rewarded the island by allowing it to take root in the Aegean, where it remains to this day. After the birth of the twins, Latona continued to wander, looking for a place which would give the outcast family shelter. In the ancient land of Lycia, she stopped at a spring to quench her thirst; but the local peasants, zealously remembering the interdiction of Juno, stirred up the mud at the bottom of the pond to make the water unfit to drink. Horrified by their inhospitality, Latona cursed the ugly peasants, turning them into frogs – forever doomed to sit in the water and agitate the mud. As the origin story of all frogs, this myth has had a lasting influence, inspiring not only Ovid but also the Athenian playwright Aristophanes (The Frogs), and works of art such as the Bassin de Latone in the garden terrace of Versailles.
We are grateful to Dr. Klaus Ertz for confirming the attribution to Jan Breughel the Younger on the basis of first-hand inspection, noting the superlative quality of the figures at right, close in execution to the hand of his father, Jan Brueghel the Elder. A close version of this composition in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, has in the past been given to Jan Brueghel the Elder, bearing a signature and date of 1601, and suggesting the existence of a studio cartoon. Another version on panel, bearing the Antwerp panel maker’s mark of Michiel Vriendt, appeared in these Rooms on 26 November 1971, lot 9, and appears to be the picture recorded in the Peto collection by 1972. The subject was already known in Flemish painting in the sixteenth century, with a work of similar iconography given to the orbit of Lodewijk Toeput (London, art market). A treatment of this subject with a similar wooded setting but entirely different iconography given to Jan Brueghel the Elder with a dating of circa 1605 is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
The seals on the reverse record a fascinating English provenance. The earlier seal gives the arms of Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull (1712-1773), installed as a Knight of the Garter in 1741, and his second wife, Elizabeth (circa 1720-1788), courtier and bigamist, daughter of Colonel Thomas Chudleigh (circa 1688–1726), lieutenant-governor of Chelsea Hospital. She was first married to the Earl of Bristol, but in February 1769 a court ruled that the marriage had not taken place and on 8 March 1769 Elizabeth married the Duke of Kingston at St. George’s, Hanover Square. The arms therefore must date between 1769 and the Duke’s death in 1773. After the death of her husband, the Duchess first went to Saint Petersburg, but, tiring of life there, she left for France, where she purchased a mansion at Montmartre and a 300-bedroomed estate at Saint-Assise, just outside Paris, for £50,000 from the Comte de Provence, later Louis XVIII. A civil suit arose over the Montmartre house; on hearing that she had lost the case, she was so distressed that she burst a blood vessel. On the following day, 26 August 1788, she died suddenly in Paris. She was buried in Pierrepont, the ancestral village of the Dukes of Kingston in the Île-de-France, making a point about her marriage to the Duke to the last. The picture may have gone with her to France and remained there until acquired by the father of the present owner; however, it could also have passed to Charles, the younger son of Kingston’s sister, Frances Medows, who eventually inherited in 1788. Charles Medows (1737-1816) changed his name to Charles Pierrepont and was later created 1st Earl Manvers. The later seal bears the arms of Swann, which can be either an English or a French family, but has not been identified.