THETIS DIPPING ACHILLES INTO THE RIVER STYX
Peter Paul Rubens Flemish 1577-1640
SN 221 Oil on Canvas 1630/35
by Robert Anderson
Peter Paul Rubens, along with the Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini,
was one of the greatest artists of the 17th century. His canvases can be said to define
the scope and style of high baroque painting through their energy, earthy humanity and
inventiveness. A devoutly religious man, a man of learning and a connoisseur of art and
antiquities, he was also a man of the world who succeeded not only as an artist but as a
respected diplomat in the service of Isabella and Albrecht of the Spanish Netherlands.
Travels to Venice where he studied Titian, Veronese & Tintoretto
freed his artistic talent from rigid classicism. While he did incorporate copies of
classical statues in his paintings he always avoided the appearance and coldness of stone.
To the contrary, his nudes, for which he became famous, always depicted an ample female
form of vitality and good health as well as of sensuousness. His mastery of color along
with his knowledge of antiquity is seen particularly in his mythological paintings.
As court painter and confidant to the Archduchess Isabella Clara
Eugenia, Rubens recognized the role art was to play in the Counter Reformation. His genius
found expression in his designs for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestries which he and
his assistants completed between 1625 and 1628.
Knighted by two monarchs and master of a successful workshop, Rubens
became rich and famous in his own time. Having executed over 3,000 paintings, woodcuts and
engravings of all types, he died the most respected artist of his time in 1640.
Thetis was a Greek goddess of the waters who was pursued and finally
won by Peleus, the grandson of Jupiter. Their son Achilles became the most famous warrior
of his age. The subject of this painting is the immersion of Achilles in the River Styx by
his mother Thetis, when he is an infant, in order to make him invulnerable. She has
grasped him by the heel in the process, however, and therefore his heel becomes the
vulnerable spot where he eventually receives his fatal wound during the Trojan War.
Thetis plunges Achilles into the river between two caryatids,
representing Pluto and Prosperpine,which support the portico. They are the rulers of
Hades. Thetis grasps Achilles by the heel with her left hand. Clotho, one of the Fates,
assists by holding a torch to illuminate the act, while Cerberus, the triple headed
watchdog of the infernal regions, lies in front. In the background Charon ferries
passengers across the river and is beseiged by a waiting multitude on the banks, who
appeal to him with outstretched hands for passage. Ill omened bats circle above in the
air, forming the ornamental frame with their wings.
The Ringling painting is a modello from The History of Achilles, which
was the last of the four tapestry commissions designed by Rubens. This painting is the
first in the series. The last tapestry in the series shows Achilles dying from an arrow
that pierced his foot, the only area of his body left unprotected when Thetis dipped him
into the Styx.
Most of the surface may be considered Rubens' work. The background
figures, the mountains and much of the term at the left probably is uncorrected
assistants' work. Clearly recognizable is Rubens' hand also in details like the fire in
the sky at the left, the light emanating from the torch, and the heads of the dogs.
The four tapestry commissions designed by Rubens were :
The History of Decius Mus - 1617
The History of Emperor Constantine - 1622-23
The Triumph of the Eucharist - 11625-28
The History of Achilles - 1630-35