Investigating Pieter Lastman’s Paris and Oenone (c. 1610), from the High Museum of Art collection
Paris and Oenone (c.1610) by Pieter Lastman, is owned by our member institution, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia (fig.1). When the painting came into the Atlanta Art Conservation Center for minor conservation treatment, I was presented with the perfect opportunity to research the methods of construction by one of my favorite Dutch artists. During this time, I was able to investigate the materials and techniques utilized by Pieter Lastman and place these results within the historical context of techniques used by Lastman’s studio. AACC has access to a wealth of analytical tools through collaboration with its sister organization, Williamstown Art Conservation Center. I worked together with Christine Puza, the Department Head of Analysis at Williamstown, and the Chemistry Department at Williams College to conduct inorganic and organic analysis. Research methodology incorporated both non-destructive imaging and sampling of the paint film. Visual analysis was done with normal and raking light, UV fluorescence, and Infrared reflectography (IRR). Presently, cross-sections are being analyzed at Williams College with SEM-EDS to establish the pigments and the layer structure Lastman used to create the remarkable Paris and Oenone.
FIGURE 1. Pieter Lastman, Paris and Oenone,1610, Oil on panel, 64.5 x 110.5 cm, High Museum of Art, Atlanta
My interest in Pieter Lastman began over twenty years ago, when as a girl, I took an art history course at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, which has a significant collection of Dutch paintings, including six by Lastman. The course’s focus was the composition of artworks made during the Northern Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age.
Pieter Lastman (c. 1583- 1633) was the teacher of both Rembrandt and Jan Lievenes and is regarded as one of the most influential masters of early Baroque and Dutch history painting. The work of Pieter Lastman and his studio served as a pivotal transition from the Baroque movement to the nascent genre painting movement of the Dutch Golden Age. As a great pictorial storyteller, Lastman’s compositions focus on narrative, often on emotional turning points, employing expressive figures and rich detail that help illustrate the story.
Pieter Lastman was active in Amsterdam during the “Dutch Golden Age": a unique era of political, economic, and cultural greatness when the Netherlands was one of the world’s most powerful and influential countries. Lastman’s father was a Catholic church official, and his mother was an appraiser of art objects; both parents may have influenced his decision to pursue painting as a trade and his choice of historical and religious scenes as subject matter . Additionally Lastman completed an apprenticeship with Gerrit P. Sweelink, whose Mannerist aesthetic profoundly influenced his early body of work [1]. Lastman developed his skill as an historical narrative painter and his expert use of dramatic lighting during his time spent in Italy between 1604 and 1607. During this period, he studied the work of Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto in Venice and saw the paintings and sculptures of Raphael and Michelangelo in Rome, alongside antique sculpture and architecture. In Rome, Lastman’s aesthetic was shaped by the dramatic narratives of Caravaggio and Adam Elsheimer and the elements of these artists’ works, such as contemporary costuming and symbolic metaphors. Furthermore, the Italians’ use of warm-colored grounds and chiaroscuro influenced Lastman to create dramatic stage lighting within his pictorial narratives. Combined together, all of these components served as inspiration for Lastman and would later become a part of his artistic repertoire.
FIGURE 2. Pieter Lastman, The Bathing of Bathsheba, 1619, Oil on panel, 107 x 160cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
FIGURE 3. Robusti, Jacopo, known as Tintoretto, Suzanne at her Bath, 1575, 167 x 238cm Paris, Musée du Louvre
Most of Lastman’s dramatic subject matter is drawn from biblical themes, but sometimes he chose stories from ancient history or mythology, like that depicted in Paris and Oenone. Such paintings were very popular among wealthy patrons, as their mythological subject matter usually provided an excuse for the depiction of overt sensuality. A great example is The Bathing of Bathsheba (c. 1619), from the Hermitage collection (fig. 2). In this painting, the figures and objects have clear plastic modeling. The artist's brush confidently sculpts the curves of a naked body, boldly emphasizes the folds of clothes, and skillfully renders an elaborate pattern of shrub branches. The execution of the picture is distinguished by strict thoughtfulness and thoroughness. Lastman's composition is borrowed from the example of Suzanne at her Bath (c. 1575) by Venetian artist Jacopo Tintoretto (fig. 3). The Bathing of Bathesba had a huge impact on the works of Lastman’s students and contemporaries. As Lastman’s pupil, Rembrandt was also influenced by the composition, resulting in The Toilet of Bathsheba (c. 1643) (fig. 4) and Susanna (c. 1636) (fig. 5). The reuse of the same story illustrates that compositions were being shared, copied, and reiterated by seventeenth century Dutch artists in order to meet the demands of the growing art market.
FIGURE 4. Rembrandt van Rijn, The Toilet of Bathsheba, 1643 Oil on wood, 57 x 76 cm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
FIGURE 5. Rembrandt van Rijn, Suzanna , Oil on panel 38.6 x 47.4 cm , Mauritshuis, Den Haag
The Dutch would have been familiar with ancient tales such as Paris and Oenone. Illustrations of stories from ancient history and mythology were widely circulated in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe through prints and engravings (figs.6-7). While common then, you may not recognize the name Oenone; her relationship with Paris is related to the cautionary and infamous tale of the Fall of Troy. The version of Paris and Oenone owned by the High Museum of Art, and the one owned by the Worcester Art Museum offer glimpses into their tragic journey and showcase the narrative skills of the Lastman studio.
FIGURE 6. Georg Pencz, Paris and Oenone, from Greek Heroines, 1539, Engraving, The Art Institute of Chicago
FIGURE 7. Jan Saenredam, Paris and Oenone, 1597, Engraving, Biblioteca Nacional de España Madrid
The Dutch art market of the period had a high demand for Lastman’s depictions of ancient history and mythology and he was often commissioned for a piece. It is therefore not surprising that his studio made more than one version of the infamous Greek story of Paris and Oenone: a tale of betrayal taking place during the Fall of Troy, where Paris leaves his lover, Oenone, for Helen of Troy. A later version by Pieter Lastman’s studio (c.1619) is held in the collection of the Worcester Museum of Art. The version owned by Worcester serves as an important visual comparison that can be used to evaluate Lastman’s narrative devices (slideshow 1).
Paris and Oenone’s story begins with Paris’s father, the Trojan king Priam, who received a prophecy that his newborn son would be responsible for the death of Troy. Paris was taken to Mount Ida and left there in the thicket of the forest. There he was raised by a shepherd, Agelay, and grew into a handsome young man while tending sheep. On Mount Ida he met Oenone, and the two enjoyed their life together until Paris was chosen by Zeus to choose between the goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera. According to some art historians and mythologists, Zeus himself sent the goddesses to Paris for the famed Judgment of Paris [2]. When Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in the world, Paris eagerly accepted and awarded her the golden apple [3]
Oenone, being a mountain nymph, had begged Paris not to leave her. She had the gift of foresight and saw the fate that awaited Troy, Helen, and Paris. What happened next is widely known: the Trojan war began and raged for ten years. The battle that ensued wounded Paris with an arrow. He approached Oenone and implored her to heal him with her medicinal powers, but she refused him. He died on the lower slopes of Mount Ida. Filled with remorse, Oenone ended her life. There are disputes by historians as to how Oenone died. One version says that she hurled herself on Paris’s funeral pyre, and another that she hanged herself. Yet another version depicts her jumping off a cliff, and another, leaping off the fortified walls of Troy [4]. Thus ended the life of the two star-crossed lovers.
The interaction between the two lovers serves as the focal point of Paris and Oenone and is offset to the right of the picture. The heroes are half-embracing on the tall roots of a mighty tree protruding from the ground. With his right hand, Paris reaches out to the side, as if trying to free himself from the arms of Oenone. Oenone presses Paris's left hand to her chest and with her right hand tries to put a marital wreath on her lover's head, persuading him not to leave her. The other marital wreath is discarded on the ground, circling Paris’s staff. Surrounding the base of the trees are dark green, curly leaves relating to root crops. A pumpkin appears to grow on the far right, indicating the transition from late summer to early fall; the large fruit appears juicy with characteristic pumpkin folds. The painting of a pumpkin is a small tribute to the cornucopias of fruit and vegetables depicted in later seventeenth-century Dutch still life paintings. The landscape serves as the backdrop for the artist to convey the storm of emotions brought upon by the couple’s unspoken dialogue. On the left side of the composition, there is foreboding in the distance achieved by dark and even gloomy blurry brushstrokes. Perhaps by this, the artist demonstrates an unknown fate that awaits Paris after he decides to leave Oenone. The witnesses to their exchange include a grazing herd noticeable in the haze of the evening dawn and fuzzy human silhouettes visible in the distant valley to the left. Paris responds with a look of indifference as he turns his gaze to a goat in the upper right corner . A feeling of dissonance is caused by the goat and ram on the far right. These “bystanders'' are painted so clearly and colorfully that they compete with the main heroes for primacy in the plot. The ram and goat serve as a common biblical metaphor to let viewers know that a moral choice is being made. The sheep relates to Oenone and personifies homeliness, comfort, and fidelity. The horned goat relates to Paris and personifies temptation, insidiousness, and even a certain demonism. This choice is the turning point in Paris’s story. He has chosen Helen, and his deception is used to warn the viewer against infidelity. The artist gives the story a theatrical fabulousness through his pictorial devices and simultaneously paints a modern Dutch scene to make the moral lesson accessible to his viewers. Pieter Lastman transfers his heroes to the present in Paris and Oenone by dressing them in Dutch costumes contemporary to the culture of seventeenth-century Holland. This anachronistic costuming is especially true of the figure Oenone. She has a hairstyle and attire typical of a wealthy woman in seventeenth century Holland. There is no allusion that she is a mountain nymph, and no sign of her divinity in her appearance. The artist has modernized the ancient plot to make it accessible and desirable to his Dutch contemporaries. While most of the composition is executed with dark marsh-brown tones, Oenone's pink skirt stands out like a bright torch and looks like a marvelous flower in clearly defined folds. The folds, which follow the lines of the preparatory drawing, are academic, strict, and stylish. Paris is dressed neither in Dutch or in ancient Greek costume. He is wearing a torn frock that bares his torso. The contrast between their costumes is another narrative device to show that Oenone is on the side of fruitful fidelity rather than moral depravity.
In 1619, Pieter Lastman began to explore the same subject, and his studio produced an alternate version of Paris and Oenone, which belongs to the Worcester Art Museum (fig. 8, slide comparison). It is possible that the second version exists because it served demands in the art market and perhaps a client that was keen for a more blatant display of sensuality. How do these two oil paintings on panel differ from each other? While technical analysis of both paintings has not been done at the time that this article was published, both panel paintings provide an interesting comparison of Lastman’s visual story-telling devices [5].
The timeframe of Paris and Oenone’s relationship changes slightly in the Worcester Museum’s version: it describes the moment right before Paris intimates his decision to leave. This version allowed the artist to reveal the prelude of their tragedy when Paris and Oenone are still together and in love. This time the artist placed the characters at center stage. They look directly at the viewer while looking pleased with themselves. Paris’s hand clutches Oenone’s exposed breasts while his other hand gently hugs his passion. Lastman utilizes modern costume again to make the moral lesson relatable to his viewers and create contrast between their virtue. Oenone is depicted in a traditional and contemporary Dutch costume with a period hairstyle; the design of her costume makes her appear more ordinary than the wealth depicted in the High’s version. While she still wears a vibrant pink dress, there are fewer folds, and her jewelry has been replaced with a simple country bonnet. Paris’s costume remains similar, with an animal skin tied around his waist.
In the High Museum’s version, everything has a dark and seemingly gloomy appearance, while Worcester’s version is flooded with light. Oenone still attempts to crown Paris with a martial wreath, but he has not yet made his decision to leave. This is the sunset of their relationship, marked by the use of a brighter palette. As with the artist’s first iteration of this subject, this painting’s composition is not static. Lastman has used both rhythm and movement; the couple is caught between the choice of fidelity represented by the dog and the choice of greed represented by the goats. It is, however, the High’s version that tells us where this story is headed: tragedy.
The compositional elements used by the artist are unity, the establishment of a focal point, the subordination of objects executed through the use of scale, and the use of visual continuity that leads the viewer’s eye from one detail of the composition to another. In both paintings the artist chose the compositional method of the “Triangle with Circular Attraction” (figs. 9-10). In each piece, the artist fixes the couple in a triangular form, but by softening the vertices of the triangle, and emphasizing the inner space around the couple, also creates an elliptical form for the eye to follow. In both paintings, the base of the triangle lies horizontally and bounds the area of the foreground, around which, a circuit is implied by the independent objects, all of which are independent points of interest in the composition, which catch the eye and keep it moving in a circle.
FIGURE 9. Pieter Lastman, Paris and Oenone, 1610, Composition analysis - Triangle with Circular Attraction
FIGURE 10. Pieter Lastman, Paris and Oenone, 1619, Composition analysis - Triangle with Circular Attraction
If attention is concentrated on the couple the eye returns and is transfixed in the triangle, the circular movement is practically eliminated and the triangular composition sends a shaft directly, with no movement. Here the pleasure of contemplation through an endless chain must be exchanged for the stimulation of a focus, forced by concentration.
When dreamily observing both paintings, the eyes involuntarily make a circuit of the objects which are arranged in the piece in an ellipse, starting at the center and widening their view toward the circumference, like a ring following a ring when a stone is thrown into the water. When the outer circuit is finished, the vision returns to the center again. It is interesting to note that in both paintings, our eye is directed in a circuit around the composition, taking us from the center to the extreme distance and then back to the center again, where again the eye is caught and once again directed outward, like a spiral. The artist has so effectively contained attention within this elliptical boundary that the viewer’s vision is kept in the circle and prevents the wayward eye from getting too near the edge and escaping the composition.
The Panel's Construction The painting support is a hardwood panel (est. oak) measuring 25 ½” (H) x 43 ¾” (W) x ¼” (D) consisting of two quarter-inch thick planks joined together with a butt joint. By comparison, the Worcester version is smaller, measuring 19 ¼” (H) x 28” (W). There is evidence of tool marks on the reverse of the High’s Lastman panel: there is irregular beveling along all four sides, and the surface has been planed with a concave blade (figs. 11a-c). The width of the bevel ranges from 1.5-5cm. The longitudinal axis of the boards coincides with the grain direction, which travels parallel to the direction of the butt joint. The butt joint was aligned using dowels fit between the upper and lower planks and fixed together with glue (presumably a mixture of animal glue and casein). The butt joint was the most common way of joining during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Boards were usually glued along their edges with casein or hot animal glue, both described by Cennino Cennini in his famous manual on Renaissance workshop practices. Typically, boards were accurately square-edged before gluing, and occasionally several incisions were made on the edges, possibly to improve glue adhesion. The assembly of boards had to be performed in a relatively short time, and the process required accurate and definitive positioning before pressure was applied [6]. During a previous conservation campaign, dovetails were added to the reverse of the panel to stabilize the support (fig. 12). Commonly called “dovetail cleats”, these hardwood x-shaped pieces of wood have been inserted cross-grain into the joint on the verso.
FIGURE 11A. Detail, irregular beveling along the side of the verso in Pieter Lastman's Paris and Oenone, 1610.
FIGURE 11B. Detail, irregular beveling along the side of the verso in Pieter Lastman's Paris and Oenone, 1610.
FIGURE 11C. Detail, irregular beveling along the side of the verso in Pieter Lastman's Paris and Oenone, 1610.
FIGURE 12. Verso, Pieter Lastman, Paris and Oenone, 1610, 64.5 x 110.5 cm, High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Preparatory Layers An off-white, artist-prepared ground was applied on top of the wooden panel. Samples taken from the panel were analyzed with SEM-EDS at Williams College. Examination of a number of cross-section samples from the Paris and Oenone painting using normal and ultraviolet light microscopy indicated that the painting has a double ground: the first layer is a reddish-brown ground layer and is not perceptible on the paint surface, while the second layer, greyish and pearlescent in appearance, is composed predominantly of lead white with a little admixture of bone black (cross-section figure). There are distinct differences between the two ground layers: the second layer contains earth pigments, chalk, and lead white that render it lighter in tone compared to the darker, reddish-brown hue of the first ground layer. In the lower layer, chalk is a minor component and lead white is absent altogether. The first ground layer does not play a significant part in the final composition, whereas the light gray second ground would have been applied with the central image of the couple in mind. The gray layer influences many areas of the composition, for example in the modeling of Oenone's face where the paint, although made of opaque pigments, is very thin and provides a luminous effect, and similarly in the painting of the hands. This somewhat reflective gray ground also shows through in the fold in the dress, where modeling layers are visible and incorporate more distinct painted lines within the thin, loose, and diluted areas of paint.
CROSS SECTION. The image of a cross-section taken from an area of loss shows a double ground layer: the warm color is the largest layer of the ground, followed by the thinner gray layer.
A double ground layer is quite common in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, and usually consists of a combination of a first layer containing a high proportion of earth pigments, followed by a lighter-toned layer with lead white, along with some black and earth pigments to create a grayish tone. Such combinations of gray over red grounds have been found for example, in works of Lastman's contemporaries, and are described in many recipes in the De Mayerne Manuscript (1620). De Mayerne, for example, advises the reader, after the application of an animal skin glue, to prime lightly with a brown, or red-brown from England, let it dry and make it smooth with a pumice stone. Then it states that the support should be primed with a second and last layer of lead white and well-chosen charcoal, small coals and a little umber to make it dry faster. Infrared imaging (IR) revealed the presence of a loose preparatory sketch for Lastman’s Paris and Oenone (figs. 13-15). IR imaging can detect carbon-based (i.e. charcoal) underdrawings that show how an artist planned or copied the composition. IR sharpened the presence of fine lines that are particularly visible in the folds of Oenone’s drapery. The lines are suggestive of a fine-tipped carbon-based material. A possible drafting material during this period was black carbonaceous shale, a harder material that easily allows for performing fine line drawings.
FIGURE 13. Pieter Lastman, Paris and Oenone, 1610, Infrared (IR) image with partially shown underdrawing.
FIGURE 14. IR image detail of the right center quadrant of the composition. Parts of the underlying drawing are clearly visible.
FIGURE 15. IR image detail of Oenone's dress. Thin black lines have been used to sketch the folds of her drapery.
The Paint Layer: Application and Pigments The paint medium is oil (est.) and has been applied in thin layers on top of the off-white ground. The painting technique used was systematic with clear blocks of color followed by delicate glazes and detailed brushwork. Close to the right edge of the painting, positioned at the bottom of the center, is Lastman’s signature in dark umber paint. The painting’s palette mostly consists of earth tones: brown, gray, green, beige, and white. More vibrant colors and glazing were used for Oenone’s dress and the floral wreaths.
At first glance, the painted surface appears smooth and without impasto (fig.16). A slight surface texture emerges primarily from the direction shape of the wood grain in the panel support (fig.17). Upon closer examination with the help of raking light, the panel's surface texture can be seen; for example, the slightly textured brushstrokes of curly long branches with clearly drawn-out leaves at the bottom left side of the composition (fig.18). Lastman, the master of details, utilizes fine and detailed paint strokes to create every small leaf on the wreaths. The details of the foliage are remarkable under magnification (figs. 19-21). The slightly raised body of the brown-green brushwork is indicative of a copper resinate glaze that has been heated.
FIGURE 16. Pieter Lastman, Paris and Oenone, 1610, Raking light photo documentation.
FIGURE 17. Raking light detail, upper left side of Paris and Oenone (1610)
FIGURE 18. Raking light detail, lower left side of Paris and Oenone (1610)
FIGURE 19. Detail, the upper center quadrant of the composition in Pieter Lastman's Paris and Oenone, 1610.
FIGURE 20. Detail, the bottom left quadrant of the composition in Pieter Lastman's Paris and Oenone, 1610.
FIGURE 21. Detail, the upper center quadrant of the composition in Pieter Lastman's Paris and Oenone, 1610.
FIGURE 22. Pieter Lastman, Paris and Oenone, 1610, UV-fluorescence
FIGURE 23. UV detail, the right center quadrant of the composition.
The Panel’s Condition Overall, the painting is in good condition and was presented for minor conservation treatment. The adhesion of the wooden planks is stable without any significant structural or degradation problems. Previous movement in the wood has resulted in partial loss of ground and paint along the panel joints; this has been treated previously and is stable. There are a few scratches affecting layers of thick and slightly degraded varnish. Examination with UV fluorescence detected at least three different layers of varnish. The uppermost layer appears to be synthetic; the oldest underlying varnish fluoresces green and is likely a natural resin varnish. Both applications were applied during previous conservation and restoration campaigns. It is not possible to detect if remnants of the original varnish film are left on the painting under the thick overlying varnish. There is a significant amount of retouching beneath the primary layer of varnish; the retouching used to cover abrasion and loss has degraded, and some areas are plainly visible in normal light (figs. 22-23).
Conservation Treatment A comparison of before and after treatment photographs (figs. 24 - 27) demonstrates that the haze and scratches on the surface are no longer apparent after the painting had been cleaned, the top varnish coating thinned, and the painting was given a fresh coat of varnish. During the procedure of cleaning, two elegantly inscribed names “OENONE PARIS” were discovered, carved into the tree (fig. 28). The inscription is in timeless classical lettering, playing with the idea of the immortality of this love story.
FIGURE 26. Before treatment detail of Paris and Oenone (1610)
FIGURE 27. After treatment detail of Paris and Oenone (1610)
FIGURE 28. After treatment detail of Paris and Oenone (1610) showing their names, “OENONE PARIS”, inscribed on the tree behind them
Pieter Lastman was a renowned painter in his day, painting principally religious and mythological subjects. His mastery of narrative influenced the work of both Rembrandt and Jan Lievens. The High Museum of Art’s Paris and Oenone is a tribute to both Lastman’s skill in storytelling as well as using the materials and techniques available in the Netherlands during the early seventeenth century. The painting’s composition follows the European period of Baroque painting, ideal for symmetry and balance, geometrical perspective, and naturalistic representation. In contemporary times, we have to value how greatly Pieter Lastman is still appreciated, even though we lack many of the references and attitudes that were commonplace in his contemporary audience. This technical examination along with the detailed documentation of the painting has the added benefit of gaining insight into the artist’s use of materials for subsequent treatments. Future studies of the painting’s technique, especially its materials, can possibly lead to the acquisition of even more new knowledge.
Photography Credit
Photography by Katya Birukova, the High Museum, Worcester Art Museum, and credited institutions.
[1] Dudok van Heel Sebastien A. C and Harmenszoon Rembrandt. De Jonge Rembrandt Onder Tijdgenoten : Godsdienst En Schilderkunst in Leiden En Amsterdam : Een Wetenschappelijke Proeve Op Het Gebied Van De Letteren. Veenman 2006.
[2] Busslovich D.S., Persianova O.M., Rummel E.V. "Mythological plots in works of art", L., Aurora, 1971.
[3] Antiquiphile: Snippets From the Ancient World, "Myth: Paris and Oenone". (Accessed October 2, 2022)
[4] Greek Boston, "About Oenone: Tragic Nymph of Greek Mythology". (Accessed October 2, 2022)
[5] Worcester Art Museum provided to us an image of the X-ray of their version of Paris and Oenone.
[6] Dardes Kathleen et al. The Structural Conservation of Panel Paintings : Proceedings of a Symposium at the J. Paul Getty Museum 24-28 April 1995. Getty Conservation Institute 1998.