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Title The Rape of Helen
Collection Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle
Artist Attributed to circle of Primaticcio, Francesco (Italian painter, sculptor, and architect, 1504-1570)
Previously attributed to Primaticcio, Francesco (Italian painter, sculptor, and architect, 1504-1570)
Date Earliest possibly about 1533
Date Latest possibly about 1535

The painting represents the abduction of Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, by the soldiers of Paris, the Trojan prince. Helen was promised to Paris by Venus as his reward for his support in a contest against Juno and Minerva. This episode became the immediate cause of the Trojan War, narrated by Homer in the Iliad.

The elongated forms of the female figures and the complexity of the composition characterise the works of the Italian painters who worked for Francis I at Fontainebleau. The mythic origins of the French royal dynasty were associated with the fall of Troy.

Current Accession Number B.M.76
Subject mythology (Trojan war, Rape of Helen); literature (Homer, Iliad)
Measurements 155.5 x 188.5 cm (estimate)
Material oil; tempera on canvas
Acquisition Details Bequeathed by the founders John and Joséphine Bowes 1885.
Provenance Duke of Buckingham, Stowe; purchased by John Bowes from Solly, 1841, £25.
Principal Exhibitions Loan Exhibition of Pictures from the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Agnews, London, 1952, cat. no. 43; Europe Humaniste, 1955, cat. no. 60; Hatton Gallery, 1960, cat. no. 12; A Rediscovered Masterpiece from the Bowes Museum. Primaticcio's 'Rape of Helen', The Hatton Gallery, London, 1963, as by Primaticcio; L'Ecole de Fontainebleau, Grand Palais, Paris, 1972 - 1973, cat. no. 142; Musée Bossuet, 1988 - 1989; Hidden Treasures of the Bowes Museum, Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, 2001 - 2002; Primatice. Maître de Fontainebleau, Paris, Louvre, 2004 - 2005, cat. no. 259, as Circle of Primaticcio.
Publications Waterhouse, E. K., 'Some Old Masters other than Spanish at the Bowes Museum', The Burlington Magazine, vol. 95, no. 601, 1953, pp. 120-123, ill. p. 122; Béguin, S., 'Note sur l'Enlèvement d'Hélène du Bowes Museum', La Revue des Arts, no. 1, 1954, pp. 27-30. Miles, H. A. D., 'The Italians at Fontainebleau', The Journal of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, vol. 119, no. 5184, 1971, pp. 851-61, fig. 5; Hood, W., 'Primaticcio's 'Rape of Helen'', The Connoisseur, 1972, pp. 117-19; Béguin, S. L'Ecole de Fontainebleau, Paris, 1972, cat. no. 142, p. 135; Scott, B., 'Letter from Paris. The Professor's Triumphs in the Salerooms', Apollo, 1989, p. 123; Tapié, A., and E. Mai, Anamorphose d'un régard sur la peinture baroque, Musée des Beaux Arts, Caen and Wallraf Richartz Museum, Cologne, 1993, ill. p. 4; Cordellier, D., Primatice. Maître de Fontainebleau, Paris, 2004, cat. no. 259, p. 465.

Dominique Cordellier considered this picture to be the work of a painter belonging to the circle of Primaticcio. She reassessed an old hypothesis that this may be the Ravissement d'Helaine painted in 1550 by Primaticcio's assistant Michel Rochetel for Nicolas Picart, notary and secretary to the French King. This possibility had already been discussed by Sylvie Béguin, who ultimately ruled it out.

The Bowes Museum's Rape of Helen was once thought to be one of seven lost scenes of the Siege of Troy painted by Primaticcio for the Chambre du Roi at Fontainebleau, although there is no documentary evidence to support this theory.

Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier interpreted Primaticcio's use of Homeric sources at Fontainebleau as a denunciation of female insubordination and the dangers of female influence in the politics of the French court. She suggested that this thematic choice implies 'a belief in the naturally predisposed dominance of men' that was part of a broader programme through which Francis I's views on the State, class and gender were expressed. (Wilson-Chevalier, K., 'Women on Top at Fontainebleau', Oxford Art Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 1993, pp. 34-48). Although this author focuses on the representations of Omphale and Hera in the decorations for the Porte Dorée, the story of Helen is also part of a long tradition of cautionary examples of the disastrous consequences of female interference in matters of government.

The chamber was dismantled and redecorated between July and September 1797: 'The pictures [were] taken from the wall and stuck onto canvas by a man called A. M. Picault. It may have been at this time that the original canvas [...] was enlarged at the top and left-hand sides [...] The paintings from the chambers were removed to the storage vaults at Versailles' (Anne Guard, manuscript essay, p. 2).

The extensive eighteenth-century additions were revealed when the painting was restored in 1963. It was probably in that period that the female nude on the left was covered with extra drapery, which was also removed during the restoration.

In correspondence (1954), Francis Watson noted the location of the painting at Stowe in the eighteenth century, adding that it was hanging in the drawing room near a Return of Briseis to her Father, also attributed to Primaticcio. See Stowe: A Description of the House and Gardens (1800), p. 54.

This interpretation of Helen's story was possibly inspired by French sixteenth-century versions of the Greek epic, such as Raoul Le Fèvre's Recueil des Histories de Troye (Lyon, 1529).

Sylvie Béguin and Myron Laskin attributed this work to a painter in the circle of Primaticcio, such as Niccolò dell'Abate or Penni. Béguin argued that the invention of the subject is undoubtedly by Primaticcio and that it can be related to a drawing (Louvre, inv. 5870) from the Mariette collection, formerly attributed to Niccolò dell'Abate. Béguin referred to a second painting of the same subject by Primaticcio, now lost and undescribed, made for the Hôtel de Liancourt. Barbara Scott identified this work as the painting seen by John Evelyn during his visit to the duc de Liancourt's collection in 1644.

E. Waterhouse considered the original attribution to Primaticcio 'genuine' and suggested that this might be the painting which decorated the Chambre du Roi at Fontainebleau. This author located the work among those produced during Primaticcio's 'earliest phase in France'. The interest in the forms of Michelangelo's nudes evidenced by the figures of the soldiers on the right also appears in drawings produced by Primaticcio before 1540. The elegant contours of the female figures denote the influence of Parmigianino and would correspond to the same early stage in the development of the Fontainebleau school.

Rights Owner The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Co. Durham
Author Dr Mercedes Cerón



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