Three hundred years ago today, on 7 January 1722 Antoine Coypel died. In the first of these two articles commemorating his life and art, I showed examples from the earlier years of his career, including a series of religious paintings he made in the 1690s. This article shows a small selection of the mythological works he made from the end of the seventeenth century, leading up to his greatest work, the huge ceiling of the Chapelle Royale in the Palace of Versailles.
In his Zephyr and Flora. Allegory of Spring from 1699, he refers to one of the most famous European paintings, Botticelli’s Primavera painted over two centuries earlier, in about 1482. Zephyrus, the west wind, is shown with butterfly wings as he crowns Flora, goddess of the Spring. Coypel carefully dodges the longer version behind Botticelli’s masterpiece, in which Flora had originally been Chloris before she was raped, then taken as a bride by Zephyrus.
At about the same time, Coypel painted Venus Bringing Weapons to Aeneas (c 1699), referring to book eight of Virgil’s Aeneid. Venus was Aeneas’ mother, and his protector during the Trojan War and his epic journey to Italy. Once there, war with the Rutuli became inevitable, so Aeneas enlisted the Tuscans as allies. Venus urged Vulcan, her husband, to make her son weapons which would ensure his safety and victory, and this painting shows her presenting them to him.
His new helmet is being worn by one of the cupids, and a couple of them surround the shield, emblazoned with images of the future history of Rome. Behind Aeneas is an old man on the ground, who could be Tiberinus, who had aided Aeneas in a dream, or the ghost of his father Anchises.
In about 1702, Coypel was commissioned to paint The Alliance of Bacchus and Cupid, which he exhibited at the Salon in 1704. The two gods are seated opposite one another at the table. Overlooking them is Cupid’s mother Venus, with one of the swans from her chariot. At the left, three Graces dance, and on the right are a couple of fauns and two cupids.
Coypel’s undated painting of Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida shows a scene from Homer’s Iliad in which Juno wants to assist the Greeks. She therefore seduces her husband Jupiter so that he falls asleep, giving her the time to give her support to the Greek forces. The two deities are accompanied by their birds: between the couple is Jupiter’s huge eagle, while one of Juno’s peacocks is in flight at the upper right.
For his painting of Alpheus Chasing Arethusa in about 1710, Coypel turned to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One day Arethusa had been returning from hunting in the heat, and started to bathe in a stream to cool off. As she slipped into the clear water, she removed her clothes and hung them from a tree. Alpheus, a river god, suddenly appeared, calling her. She took fright and flight, leaving her clothes behind.
At first, Arethusa was able to keep her pursuer at a comfortable distance, but as they ran further, she started to tire and sensed him drawing closer. When she was exhausted, she called on the goddess Diana to come to her aid, and she was turned into a stream. Although Alpheus couldn’t see her any more, he waited, trying to discover where she had gone; her stream was joined by Alpheus’ river, which then disappeared into the ground in a rock cleft – what is known in limestone terrain as a swallet hole – to reach Diana’s island of Ortygia, in the centre of the city of Syracuse, on Sicily.
In around 1710, Coypel was commissioned by the Sun King to paint the ceiling of the nave of his royal chapel in the Palace of Versailles, in what must be the artist’s greatest surviving work.
The central area shows Almighty God the Father (below), with two smaller scenes at each end, with the overall full title of God the Father in His Glory Bringing to the World the Promise of Redemption. This was the fifth chapel to be built at Versailles, and was begun in 1689, and finally consecrated in 1710, as the last monumental building of Louis XIV. It has since been deconsecrated, and is now used as a venue for state and private events.
Coypel’s self-portrait from 1715 shows him late in his career, in his mid-fifties, in the year that his great patron the Sun King died in the Palace at Versailles. The following year, Coypel was finally appointed painter to the Sun King’s successor, Louis XV, and he was ennobled the year after. Antoine Coypel died on 7 January 1722, at the age of 61.
His son, Charles-Antoine (1694-1752) continued the family tradition, becoming the king’s painter, director of the Académie Royale, and curator of the king’s art collection. Among Charles-Antoine Coypel’s many accomplishments were the designs for a series of tapestries to accompany the story of Don Quixote.