This picture previously unrecognised mythological picture is a notable addition to the corpus of Ricci's work. Its history is unknown before it appeared in the 1950s in the collection of the art historian Paul Buberl, by whom it was attributed to Alessandro Turchi and lent under this name to the Residenzgalerie, Salzburg. The majority of Buberl's pictures, many of which were also on loan to the Residenzgalerie, were sold in the late 1960s but the present work was given to the late husband of the present owner in 1968.
The composition has been connected to Ricci's oeuvre since 1954 by virtue of a reduced version sold in these Rooms, 5 March 1954, lot 9, when it was acquired by the N.A.C.F. and then presented to Manchester City Art Gallery. However, the attribution of the Manchester picture has never gained general acceptance. Anthony Blunt suggested in 1970 that it was by William Kent, and Jeffrey Daniels included it as an 'attributed work' in his 1976 monograph, concluding that it was 'certainly in the style of Ricci, but not entirely convincing as a work from his hand' (J. Daniels, Sebastiano Ricci, Sussex, 1976, p. 70, no. 221). The sophistication of the composition, the self-assurance of the handling and the subtlety of the colour scheme in the present picture proclaim it as a fully autograph work by Ricci and evidently the prototype for the Manchester picture.
The subject, which is unique within Ricci's oeuvre and rarely treated by any of his contemporaries, is taken from Ovid (Metamorphoses, II, 708-832). Ricci depicts the moment the three daughters of Cecrops, king of Athens, on leaving the temple of Minerva, were espied by Mercury who immediately fell in love with the most beautiful of the three - Herse. Mercury is shown, smitten by Cupid's arrow, swooping down towards Herse who stands unaware between her two sisters on the temple steps. Aglaurus, one of Herse's sisters, perhaps shown here in yellow, later became consumed by envy, and for preventing Mercury from seeing her sister was turned to black stone - the colour of her thoughts.