Frogs and toads are small and humble creatures, hardly attractive themes for the artist. They’ve had their moments in paint though, through several myths and folk tales, in particular. In this weekend’s two articles about painting, I’ll show you some examples: today looking at what was once a well-known classical myth, and tomorrow in legends and folk tales.
For nearly two millenia, until the death of Classics in the twentieth century, one of the most popular myths was that of the birth of Apollo and Diana. Their mother was the goddess Latona (in Greek versions, Leto), whose worship centred on Lycia, at the western end of the south coast of modern Turkey.
Latona’s pregnancy was the result of another of Jupiter’s extra-marital relationships. When she started labour, she fled from Juno to the countryside in Lycia, where it was very hot. After she had delivered her twin infants and they had drunk her milk, she sought to slake her thirst in a small lake among marshes, where local peasants were cutting reeds. She went down and was about to drink from the lake when those locals stopped her. Latona told them that drinking the water was a common right, and that she only intended to drink and not to bathe in it.
The locals continued to prevent her, threatening her and hurling insults. They then stirred up the mud on the bottom of the lake, to muddy the water. Latona’s thirst was replaced by anger, and she cursed them to remain in that pool forever, transforming them into frogs.
Tintoretto’s simple panel of Lycian Peasants Changed Into Frogs from 1541-42 tells this story in just five figures. This was one of a series of which fourteen have survived, telling well-known myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They were the artist’s first substantial commission, and decorated a room in a palace near San Marco in Venice.
Tintoretto has been attributed this slightly later panel showing Latona Changing the Lycian Peasants into Frogs. Latona rests a baby on each hip as she tries to enlist the co-operation of the Lycians, who are becoming more froglike but haven’t yet been transformed.
Annibale Carracci’s Latona and the Lycian Peasants probably from 1590-1620 is perhaps the first truly masterly painting of this myth. Latona is here placing her curse on the locals, and behind them one has already been transformed into a frog. Although the babies’ heads are disproportionately small (as was the case for several centuries), they and their mother are very realistically portrayed, and contrast markedly with the uncouth and obdurate Lycians.
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s panel showing Latona and the Lycian Peasants from 1595-1610 is set in a dense forest – probably quite inappropriate for Lycia – where the locals are busy cutting reeds and foraging. Latona, at the bottom left, is seen remonstrating with a peasant, over to the right.
As the detail below shows, the goddess is in need, as are her babies. The peasant closest to her, brandishing his fist, is already rapidly turning into a frog. There are many other frogs around, including a pair at the bottom left corner, near the feet of one of the babies.
David Teniers the Younger’s Latona and the Frogs from around 1640–50 is not perhaps in the same class as Brueghel’s, but still tells the story well, and shows Lycians being transformed for refusing to help the goddess.
Francesco Trevisani’s Latona and the Frogs from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century is, like Tenier’s, painted in oil on copper. Even as his peasants are turning into frogs, they are still refusing to let Latona drink from their lake.
François Lemoyne’s Latona and the Peasants of Lycia (1721) stops short of showing the metamorphosis, or any frogs, but Latona and the peasants are clearly engaged in their dispute.
Johann Georg Platzer’s Latona Turning the Lycian Peasants into Frogs (c 1730) is another fine work on copper which shows all the key elements of the story, including the rather macabre appearance of the peasants as they are transformed.
The artist who painted this Italian Landscape with Latona and the Lycian Peasants sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century has not been identified. That is a pity, as it depicts the story well, with the head of two of the peasants already assuming the form of frogs.
The story survived in narrative painting well into the latter half of the nineteenth century, when Gabriel Guay painted his Latona and the Peasants (1877). Latona and her babies now seem not just real but almost contemporary, which minimises her divinity. The peasants are here actively engaged in muddying the waters.
Guay was a pupil of Jean-Léon Gérôme, who went on to become a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. His first painting was accepted for the Paris Salon in 1873, so this is one of his earlier works. Despite winning silver medals at the Universal Expositions in Paris in 1889 and 1900, and sustained success at the Salon, his work is now almost entirely forgotten.
Tomorrow I will look at a selection of more recent paintings of tales which should be more familiar.