Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Myth and Majesty: The Humanistic Tradition
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Peter Paul Rubens
Aurora and Cephalus, 1636
Oil on panel, 30.8 x 48.5 cm
The National Gallery, London, no. NG2598


Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

Having descended from her chariot drawn by two rearing white horses, Aurora, the goddess of the dawn rushes in from the left reaching toward the youth Cephalus, who, extending his right arm toward her, is seated in profile holding a spear with sleeping dogs beneath a tree. She is clad in reddish ocher drapery with yellow highlights, and Cephalus has a red tunic and ocher drapery. While the landscape is treated in muted browns, the morning sky is bright with blue-gray, purple, and pink hues.

With the exception of the Diana and Her Nymphs Hunting (Alpers 1971, no. 20a), this is the largest of all the oil sketches for the Torre de la Parada decorations. The goddess of the dawn fell in love with a succession of mortal youths, but her greatest passion was for Cephalus, who at least initially spurned her. Her obsession with this young man became so fixed that she neglected her duties in leading her sister, Helios the sun goddess, across the skies, thus threatening the universe. However the story of Aurora and Cephalus is recounted variously by classical authors. Ovid (Metamorphoses 7.700ff.) stressed that Cephalus did not return Aurora's love and was faithful to his wife, Procris. His steadfast fidelity angered the goddess, who as she departed intimated the couple's tragic end. Since Rubens's treatment of the scene scarcely suggests resistance on Cephalus's part, Julius Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 262) concluded that Rubens consulted other classical sources for the tale: such as Hesiod (Theogony, 985), which was adopted by Pausanius (Attica, 3.1), which stated that two became lovers and the parents of Phaeton; or the account of Apollodous (3.C.15), who distinguished between two different characters named Cephalus, the one who was the son of Mercury and Herse and fathered Tithonus; and the second, the son of Deioneus, who married Procris. Rubens probably was also familiar with modern adaptations of the Greek myth, such as the popular play by Gabriello Chiabrera (1552-1637), Il rapimento di Cephalo, in which Cephalus, however, resists as he was swept away by Aurora in her chariot.

The final full-scale painted version for the Torre de la Parada is lost but may be identical with a painting presumably misidentified as Endymion and Diana, sometimes attributed to Willeboirts Bosschaert (Indimien y Diana by Villebors) in the Spanish royal inventories of 1700, 1747, and 1794 (see Alpers 1971, no. 6). A copy (31 x 47 cm) of the present work in a private collection in Paris was exhibited in Brussels (1965, no. 234), as the original.


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