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).
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