In Greek mythology the Titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods on Mount Olympus to give to humanity. Furious, Zeus, king of the Olympians, ordered Prometheus forever chained to a rock, where each day an eagle would devour the Titan’s perpetually regenerating liver.
This painting, which Peter Paul Rubens considered one of his most important works, represents the virtuoso artist at his absolute height. Working in collaboration, a common practice for master artists in Antwerp in the first two decades of the seventeenth century, Rubens and the famed animal and still-life painter Frans Snyders, who contributed the eagle, rendered the brutal tale of Prometheus with corresponding violence.
The enormous bird’s beak rips open the Titan’s torso, exposing blood-soaked entrails. To gain purchase on the captive’s flesh, one of the eagle’s talons gouges Prometheus’s right eye. His left eye is locked on the predator, signaling he is fully aware of his torture, while his writhing legs, clenched fist, and tousled hair convey the Titan’s abject agony.
Rubens, who intensively had studied the art he saw on his travels to Italy, Spain, and England, derived the hulking figure of Prometheus, with its broad frame and dense musculature, from prototypes by Michelangelo.
The picture’s asymmetrical composition, in which Prometheus tumbles downward with his left arm almost reaching beyond the canvas, was inspired by a painting by Titian of the giant Tityus (1548–49; Museo del Prado, Madrid). Here Rubens masterfully synthesized and melded these sources with his own Baroque sensibilities.