Francesco Zuccarelli

A Landscape with the Story of Cadmus Killing the Dragon

exhibited 1765

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1264 x 1572 mm
frame: 1497 x 1800 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1985
Reference
T04121

Summary

The subject of this painting is taken from Book III of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Cadmus, the mythological founder of Thebes and brother of Europa, while on his journey to Thebes is called upon to overcome a dragon sacred to Mars. The serpent, which dwells in a cave beside a spring in the primeval forest, destroys the hero's companions when they come to collect spring water. Protected by a lion-skin and armed with a javelin, Cadmus first throws a massive boulder at the dragon, then backs it against an oak tree and spears it to death. Zuccarelli renders the scene with great accuracy of detail, but characteristically reduces Ovid's towering monster to proportions that do not interfere with the pleasantly Arcadian landscape, making the hero's victory reassuringly predictable. Similarly, the mangled remains of Cadmus's numerous companions have been reduced to two figures lying on the ground as if asleep. The result is an attractive painting which James Barry, on seeing it at the 1765 Free Society of Artists exhibition, described as 'an exceedingly good landscape'. While enhancing its interest by the insertion of a classical subject, Zuccarelli lets the landscape element predominate.

Zuccarelli was an early influence on Richard Wilson, whose later gloomy and dramatic treatment of another subject from Ovid, Meleager and Atalanta, 1771 (Tate Gallery T03366), while retaining much of Zuccarelli's basic compositional formula, contrasts with the latter's pleasingly coloured Rococo rendering.

Zuccarelli was one of several Italian artists who travelled to England in the eighteenth century. His idealised Italian views found great favour with English audiences, and he rapidly achieved success in that country, becoming a founder-member of the Royal Academy in 1768. Many of his works were engraved. This painting dates from Zuccarelli's second long stay in London (1765-c.1771).

Further reading:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1988, p.84, reproduced
E. Einberg and J. Egerton, The Age of Hogarth, Tate Gallery Collections: Volume Two, London 1988, pp.248-9, reproduced in colour

Terry Riggs
January 1998

Display caption

This painting illustrates the story of Cadmus, founder of the ancient city of Thebes, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Cadmus is slaying the dragon that has killed his companions. They have died trying to collect spring water from the dragon’s cave, not knowing that it is sacred to the god Mars. Cadmus is protected by a lion-skin and armed with a javelin. The Italian painter Zuccarelli left Venice for London in 1752, his mythological landscapes popular with British patrons. In 1768 he was commissioned to produce works for George III, and was a founding member of The Royal Academy.

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

Francesco Zuccarelli 1702-1788

T04121 A Landscape with the Story of Cadmus Killing the Dragon 1765

Oil on canvas 1264 x 1572 (49 3/4 x 61 7/8)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1985
Prov: ...; said to come 'from the Earl Spencer's Collection', but not traceable in nineteenth-century catalogues of paintings at Althorp; ...; Thomas Capron, sold Christie's 3 May 1851 (40 as 'Jason Destroying the Dragon, in a Grand Woody Landscape, near a Cascade') bt Clarke; ...; Christie's 19 November 1982 (49, repr.), bt Colnaghi, from whom bt by Tate Gallery
Exh: SA 1765 (211); Views from the Grand Tour, Colnaghi, New York 1983 (50, repr.); Art, Commerce, Scholarship: A Window onto the Art World - Colnaghi 1760 to 1984, Colnaghi 1984 (32, repr.)
Lit: E. Fryer (ed.), The Works of James Barry, Historical Painter, 1809, I, p.19; M. Levey, 'Francesco Zuccarelli in England', Italian Studies, vol.14, 1959, pp.1-20
Repr: Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, p.55 (col.)

The painting, which dates from Zuccarelli's second long stay in London, takes its subject from Book III of Ovid's Metamorphoses where Cadmus, on his journey to Thebes, is called upon to overcome a dragon sacred to Mars. The 'serpent', which dwells in a cave beside a spring in the primeval forest, destroys the hero's companions when they come to collect spring water for a libation. Protected by a lion-skin and armed with a javelin, Cadmus first throws a massive boulder at the dragon, then backs it against an oak tree and spears it to death. Zuccarelli renders the scene with great accuracy of detail, but characteristically reduces Ovid's towering monster to proportions that do not interfere with the pleasantly Arcadian landscape and make the hero's victory reassuringly predictable. Similarly, the mangled remains of Cadmus's numerous companions have been reduced to two figures lying on the ground as if asleep. The result is an handsome painting which Barry, on seeing it at the 1765 exhibition, described as 'an exceedingly good landscape'. While enhancing its interest by the insertion of a classical subject, Zuccarelli, like Wilson lets the landscape element predominate, perhaps in order to associate himself more directly with the Claudean tradition.

In view of Zuccarelli's undoubted early influence on Wilson, it is interesting to compare this pleasingly coloured Rococo composition with Wilson's gloomily dramatic rendering of an equally savage subject from Ovid a few years later, the 'Meleager and Atalanta' of 1771 (T03366), in order to observe how differently Wilson has evolved his interpretation of landscape as a vehicle for dramatic and poetic expression, while retaining much of Zuccarelli's basic compositional formula.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, p.84 [24]