Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish (active Italy, Antwerp, and England)
Oil on canvas
7 feet 11 1/2 inches × 6 feet 10 1/2 inches (242.6 × 209.6 cm)
Purchased with the W. P. Wilstach Fund, 1950
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About This Painting
This large painting shows the punishment of Prometheus, a story from ancient Greek mythology. Prometheus, a Titan (giant), created humans from clay, carefully modeling them after the gods. Unhappy with seeing the humans suffer from cold and darkness, Prometheus asked Zeus, king of the gods, to give them fire. Zeus refused, fearing that people would become too powerful and try to overthrow the gods. In spite of Zeus’s decision, Prometheus took a glowing ember from Mount Olympus and carried it down to earth so that humans could keep warm, see at night, cook their food, and work with metals. Furious, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rocky crag on Mount Caucasus (KAW-kawsus), where an eagle tore out his liver every day. Because Prometheus was immortal, his liver grew back every night, only to be devoured again by the powerful bird. After many years, the hero Heracles (also known as Hercules) killed the eagle and set Prometheus free.
The artist of this work, Peter Paul Rubens, lived in Antwerp (Belgium), where he directed a huge workshop that produced altarpieces and ceilings for cathedrals and palaces all over Europe. This painting, however, with its unusual, diagonal composition, hung in Rubens’s studio for many years, perhaps for inspiration. He created it in collaboration with Frans Snyders, an artist who specialized in detailed depictions of animals and flowers. Rubens rendered the brightly lit, dramatic form and soft flesh of Prometheus with loose brushstrokes; Snyders painted the dark eagle using tiny, nearly invisible brushstrokes.
This object is included in Learning to Look: 20 Works of Art Across Time and Cultures, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by the Comcast Foundation, The Delphi Project Foundation, and Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company.