The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus
(1618) by Rubens
The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618)
Name: The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus
Responsible for some of the best Baroque paintings, Rubens excelled in all genres. An outstanding contributor to Catholic Counter-Reformation art, he was also much sought after for his history painting as well as his portrait art and landscape painting. Today he is seen as the leading exemplar of Flemish Baroque art and a bridge between the classicism of the Italian Renaissance and the dynamism and drama of Baroque painting - a position illustrated perfectly by his masterpiece, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. Strongly influenced by the colour schemes used by Titian and others in Venetian altarpieces, when art criticism emerged from the 17th century Rubens was considered to be the master of colour, while Nicolas Poussin was seen as the master of design. Other exceptional works by Rubens include: Samson and Delilah (1609, National Gallery, London); Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1612-14); Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (1629-30, National Gallery, London); and Judgement of Paris (1632-6, National Gallery, London).
Rubens' life-size painting illustrates the mythical tale recounted by the poets Theocritus (c.300-250 BCE) and Ovid (43 BCE 18 CE), concerning the abduction of the daughters of King Leucippus of Argos, by the twin brothers Castor and Pollux (Polydeuces), together known as the Dioscuri. According to legend, these twins had the same mother, Leda, but different fathers: Castor was the earthly son of Tyndareus, King of Sparta, while Pollux was the divine son of Zeus, who seduced Leda in the guise of a swan. The brothers were set on marrying Hilaeira and Phoebe - the daughters of Leucippus - who were also known as the Leucippides. Unfortunately, they were already betrothed to the twin brothers Lynceus and Idas of Thebes, sons of Tyndareus's brother Aphareus. So to enforce their will, Castor and Pollux carried off the two women to Sparta, where they were duly married, and both gave birth to sons: Phoebe bore Mnesileos to Pollux; Hilaeira bore Anogon to Castor.
The picture shows the moment when Hilaeira and Phoebe are physically abducted by the Dioscuri. (Note: In classical myths, the word "rape" means "abduction".) On the left, Castor the horse-tamer, identifiable by his armour and his obedient horse, grabs the struggling Hilaeira; while on the right, Pollux the boxer, recognizable from his bare chest and unruly mount, wrestles with the flailing Phoebe. (Note: The rein of Castor's horse is held by a cherub with a black wing - Rubens' way of indicating the ultimate fate of its rider.)
Despite the violence of the scene, the four figures and two horses are meticulously arranged within the picture plane, so as to create a dynamic but balanced composition. The figures in particular are carefully interlocked in a tangled but carefully choreographed mass so that all movement is contained within the group, thus enhancing its effect. The violent action is also set off by the tranquility of the beautiful blue sky and rolling landscape in the background.
Rubens always aspired to match the classicism and heroic grandeur of Renaissance art, and this masterpiece is no exception. The two brothers have similar muscular bodies to those in Michelangelo's Genesis fresco in the Sistine Chapel, while the rich reds, golds and greens of the women's clothes are reminiscent of Titian and Venetian Colour Painting (1500-76). The fleshy female nudes however are pure Rubens.
The composition is based on two different diagonals diverging from the foot of the painting, where the feet of Pollux and Phoebe stand side by side, while the white skin of the nude blonde women provides a sharp contrast with the brown bodies of their kidnappers.
Art critics continue to debate the meaning of The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. One scholar, for example, suggests that Rubens created this painting at the behest of an aristocrat who wished to celebrate the arranged double marriage of Louis XIII of France and his sister Elisabeth to the teenage Philip IV of Spain and his sister Anne, all of whom were aged between eleven and fifteen. Another historian concludes that the artist is promoting natural impulse over conventional inhibition. Or maybe Rubens is merely illustrating the women's elevation to divine status, as they are literally and figuratively raised up to the heavenly heights of Olympus, home of the gods. An apotheosis perhaps, of the fair sex.
on the way to Damascus (1601) by Caravaggio.
of Seville (1618-22) by Velazquez.
Beheading Holofernes (1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi
of the Sabine Women (1634-5) by Nicolas Poussin.
in Arcadia Ego (1637) by Nicolas Poussin.
of Pope Innocent X (1650) by Velazquez.
For more mythological paintings by Baroque artists like Rubens, see: Homepage.
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