The County Museum of Art has received “Andromeda Chained to the Rock,” a rare mythological painting by 17th-Century Flemish master Anthony Van Dyck, as a 20th-birthday gift from the Ahmanson Foundation. The price of the painting, purchased from a private New York collection, was not revealed.
“Andromeda,” an oil painted around 1637-38, goes on view today in the museum’s Flemish gallery. Preparations for the public unveiling were under way earlier this week as the picture emerged from the conservation laboratory, fit perfectly into a suitably old and ornate frame and took its place--quite spectacularly--in a new installation. Framed by a doorway, the large canvas (about 4x7 feet) can be seen from several galleries away.
“It sends chills up and down my spine,” said Scott Schaefer, curator of European painting and sculpture. Stepping back to see how the picture read at a distance, he proclaimed it “a masterpiece.”
“Andromeda” portrays a life-size nude woman standing against billowing blue drapery and attached by her wrists to a rocky cliff. According to Greek mythology, she is an Ethiopian princess about to be sacrificed to a sea monster depicted as a bloodthirsty fish swimming ominously near her feet. Perseus, Andromeda’s savior, flies to the rescue on a winged horse. In Van Dyck’s interpretation of the mythical theme, Perseus’ sword is poised to slay the monster in the ocean far below his flying steed.
“Andromeda” is a homage to Venetian master Titian, who was idolized by Van Dyck, according to Schaefer. “Van Dyck owned 19 Titians at the time of his death, including his ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ which is now in London’s Wallace Collection,” he said.
Schaefer considers Van Dyck’s “Andromeda” a “major rediscovery,” both because it is little known and unpublished and because “it played a major role in his life.” Though the oil is one of only two known paintings of mythological subjects from Van Dyck’s English period, it represents his aspirations.
Paintings of historical, religious and mythical themes fetched twice the price of the elegant portraits for which Van Dyck was known. Though he became very wealthy and his portraits were in great demand, Van Dyck continued to seek the prestige that came with major commissions of works based on sweeping themes.
Van Dyck (1599-1641) painted “Andromeda” in England, near the end of his life. After assisting Peter Paul Rubens in his native Antwerp, he worked extensively in Italy and finally settled in London, where he became a court painter and was knighted by Charles I.
Van Dyck’s mistress, Margaret Lemon, modeled for “Andromeda,” as she had for “Cupid and Psyche,” the other known English-period painting based on a myth. History has portrayed Lemon as a woman with a violent temper who once tried to bite off Van Dyck’s thumb. The artist left her shortly after painting “Andromeda” and married Mary Ruthven.