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