David Wilkie, who from 1956 until his death in 1992 was an important collector of Modern British Art, commissioned The Origin of the Great Bear. In 1965 he commissioned Auerbach to produce a work based on Titian's mythological painting Tarquin and Lucretia (Akademie der Bildenden Kunst, Vienna) which Wilkie had seen in the Treasures of Vienna exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1949. The commission resulted in two works: Study after Titian I (Tate T06683) and Study after Titian II (Tate T06684). The brief for The Origin of the Great Bear, however, did not specify a particular work as the source material. Instead Wilkie asked Auerbach to produce a painting with a Titianesque subject without referring to a specific work by Titian, that is to say a work which Titian might have produced, but in fact did not.
The subject matter of The Origin of the Great Bear is the myth of Callisto as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The story relates how Callisto, one of Diana's warrior nymphs, was raped by Jupiter while resting in a quiet grove, and then banished by Diana for breaking her vow of chaste fidelity. Having borne Jupiter's child, Arcas, Callisto is then transformed into a bear by Juno, Jupiter's wife, out of vengeance for submitting to her husband. Years later, Arcas, while out hunting, encounters a bear, not knowing that it is his long lost mother in ursine form. As Callisto gazes at her son, Arcas reaches for his spear, but Jupiter stays the hunter's hand. They are then both lifted into the heavens and set in the sky as the neighbouring constellations Ursa Major (The Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (also known as Arcturus).
Auerbach interpreted the myth freely, scattering elements of the narrative within a depiction of a real place - Hampstead Heath. On the horizon in the distance is the Royal Free Hospital; the red figure in the foreground has been identified by Auerbach both as the goddess Diana with her hounds and the Labour politician Michael Foot with his dog. The eagle-form seen in the top left of the painting represents Jupiter as he intervenes to carry Callisto and Arcas into the heavens. The blue-black ideogram directly beneath this form represents Callisto lying in the grass. The seven bright stars in the upper right mark out the Great Bear as it is seen in the night sky.
There were nine paintings by Auerbach in Wilkie's collection, of which six were commissions. He also owned several drawings by the artist. Wilkie's interest in art had been ignited by a visit to Rome at the end of the Second World War, where he was profoundly affected by the Old Master paintings in the Vatican Collection, particularly those by Titian and Bernini.
Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, reproduced p.74, plate 41 (colour)
Paul Moorhouse, The Wilkie Gift: Contemporary Art from the Collection of David Wilkie, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1994, reproduced p.1 (colour)