The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis

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The gods of ancient Greece celebrate the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the future parents of Achilles. Only Eris, goddess of discord, had not been invited, though she makes a dramatic appearance. Hovering over the festivities on bat-like wings, she holds a golden apple that will cause an argument among the assembled goddesses, eventually leading to the Trojan War.

Paintings on copper, like this one, were highly prized by collectors. The metal’s smooth surface enabled Wtewael to include tiny details that draw the viewer into the story.

Joachim Wtewael [was] one of a group of mannerist artists active in Haarlem and Utrecht at the end of the sixteenth century and in the early years of the seventeenth century. Unlike Jacob van Ruisdael, who chose to interpret the Dutch countryside and its inhabitants in a naturalistic way, Wtewael and the other mannerists were interested in the human body, elegantly though artificially rendered—a taste refined by study in Italy. The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis is a celebration of the nude. It is an extremely complex arrangement of figures in exaggerated poses. The artist did not, however, deny the traditional Dutch penchant for naturalism, for he placed the scene in a lush and vividly detailed woodland setting. In this way, Wtewael bridged the styles of north and south in a single painting.

The narrative of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis is as complex as the painting’s composition. The story was known to the Dutch through Catullus, a Roman poet of the first century B.C. It appears in his Carmina 64 and is part of the prologue to the story of the Trojan War. Peleus, the king of the Myrmidons, fell in love with Thetis, the beautiful queen of the Nereids, who were sea nymphs. All the gods except Eris, the goddess of discord, were invited to the wedding. Many of them can be identified in the painting. At the left are Neptune with his trident in the lower corner and Apollo with his lyre in the upper corner. Venus and Mars embrace in the center, while Cupid stands beside her. At the far right Jupiter, wearing a crown, talks with Diana, who wears a crescent-moon diadem. Eris, in a rage at being excluded, hovers ominously, about to drop a golden apple into the crowd.

According to the legend, the apple was inscribed “For the Fairest,” and Juno, Minerva, and Venus all claimed it. Jupiter, unwilling to become involved in deciding who was most beautiful, sent the three goddesses to find the shepherd Paris and ask him to choose among them. This subsequent story, which culminated in Paris awarding the apple to Venus, can also be seen in the distant background of the painting, just to the right of center. All the goddesses had tried to bribe Paris, but Venus won by promising him the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife. Accordingly, after winning the golden apple, Venus helped Paris abduct Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Paris took her home to Troy, where Priam, his father, was king. Menelaus pursued them with a huge army of Greeks, and thus began the Trojan War.

The wedding of Peleus and Thetis was one of Wtewael’s favorite subjects, and he painted at least six versions. While the original story warned against pride and envy, Wtewael’s vision of the wedding feast focused more on the evils of excess and immorality. Nonetheless, his bacchanal is seductive, and its appeal is increased by the painting’s jewel-like surface and perfect condition.

—Steven Kern, excerpted from The Clark: Selections from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Steven Kern et al. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), p. 24.

Provenance

George Smith, London; (his sale, Christie’s, London, 10 April 1880, no. 63, as Brueghel and Van Balen, sold to Waters); private collection, Scandinavia, c. 1930; (sale, Sotheby’s, London, 11 April 1990, no. 19); (Swedish art market); [Newhouse Galleries, New York, 1991, sold to the Clark]; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1991.

Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael

Dutch, 1566–1635

The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis

1612

Oil on copper

14 3/8 x 16 9/16 in. (36.5 x 42 cm) Frame: 18 5/8 × 21 × 2 3/8 in. (47.3 × 53.3 × 6 cm)


Acquired by the Clark, 1991

1991.9


ON VIEW