Italian. Late Seventeenth or Early Eighteenth Century


Height: 60" (152 cm)
Width: 50 1/4" (127.5 cm);
Depth: 2 3/4" (7.5 cm)

Height: 60 3/4" (154 cm)
Width: 51" (130 cm)
Depth: 3 1/2" (9cm)

Of gouache on paper laid to canvas. Each picture with a molded oval frame, one depicting the classical figure of Hercules, astride a lion and resting a hand on a wooden club, with a short beard, a crown of oak leaves and with a flowing cloak, the second depicting the classical figure of Cronus, with a long beard and a flowing cloak, sitting on a sphinx sculpture and leaning on a scythe which rests against a decaying branch from which hangs a serpent consuming itself.The present oval paintings represent classic depictions of the mythological figures of Hercules (adapted from the Greek equivalent of Herecles) and Cronus (associated with the Roman deity Saturn). The composition of the paintings is closely related to the forms of antique sculpture, here given greater animation and a baroque sense of drama.

Hercules, son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmena, is shown here at the height of his powers with a massive, bulky presence and with the closely trimmed beard of a young man. He is often depicted in a similar pose, astride the Nemean lion, whose slaying was the first of his twelve labors. He is also depicted with his cloak, often replaced by the pelt of the lion in the portrayal of later labors, flying out behind him, and with his left hand resting on the most characteristic of his objects, his club.1

The second painting depicts Cronus, or Saturn, the ancient god of agriculture who, in his Greek manifestation, features in the myth of creation and came to be associated with Time. As in typical representations of Cronus, he is shown here as a more aged man, with a long beard and without the strident virility of the younger Hercules. As the deity of agriculture and of time, he rests on a scythe with a serpent consuming itself, an ancient symbol of eternity, hanging from the withered branch on which he leans.2

The sophistication of these compositions, with their academic appreciation of the subtleties of ancient mythology, suggests that they were almost certainly commissioned by a man of considerable intellectual accomplishment and erudite taste. The skill with which the characterizing details of the figures are portrayed speaks to the highly developed talents and abilities of the artist who executed the commission.

Paintings of such considerable size, round or oval in form, and with a broad molded frame, were a feature of the decoration of the most important houses of the period, and typically occupied the large wall space of formal rooms such as entrance halls and staircases. The present grisailles are related to a mural on the landing of the Great Staircase at Chatsworth, Derbyshire (figure 1).3 There, another depiction of Hercules with attendant lion is similarly painted, like the present ovals, in muted grey tones. That composition seems to have been derived from the famous form of the Farnese Hercules, an antique sculpture by Glycon discovered in 1540 now in the Museo Nazionale Archaeologico, Naples. As in that statue and the present painting, the figure appears massive and powerful, with huge bulk to the shoulders and torso as he leans against the upturned form of his club, with his head turned away and looking down.

The Chatsworth mural formed part of the scheme of painted decoration to the Great Stairs at the house undertaken by the celebrated court artist Antonio Verrio for William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire, between 1690 and 1692. Verrio’s work at Chatsworth in the 1690s was one of his most accomplished commissions, part of a number of highly prestigious schemes undertaken in some of England’s finest houses, including Lowther Hall and Burghley House. This period in the 1690s represents a brief interruption in the series of royal commissions that constituted the bulk of Verrio’s career in England. During his employ Verrio introduced for the first time the heroic exuberance and theatrical illusionism of the later baroque, which had long been in use on the Continent and had been perfected by Charles Le Brun in his work for the court of Louis XIV.

Born in Lecce in 1639, Verrio arrived in England from Paris, where he had established a reputation as a painter, mixing in the company of Molière and being received into the Academie. It was in Paris that Verrio came to the attention of Ralph Montagu, later 1st Duke of Montagu, Charles II’s Ambassador Extraordinary to the French Court, and it seems to have been under his sponsorship that Verrio arrived in England in 1672. It was probably Montagu who recommended Verrio to his first English patron, Henry Bennet, 1st Lord Arlington, for whom he worked both at Euston in Suffolk and in Bennet’s London house, where Verrio came to the attention of Charles II.

A prolonged association between Verrio and the crown began in earnest with the adornment of the North Range at Windsor Castle reconstructed by Hugh May from circa 1675-1684. In the year he completed his works at Windsor, Verrio was made “first and chief painter to his Majesty” in succession to Sir Peter Lely. Royal preferment continued under Charles II’s successor James II and, despite an interruption in this patronage following the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Verrio returned to royal service later in life, working intermittently again at Windsor from 1699, and more significantly being employed on the decoration of the new buildings at Hampton Court from January 1700-1.4


  1. Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art. London, 1987. 147-8.
  2. ibid. 272-3.
  3. Duchess of Devonshire and Simon Upton. Chatsworth: The House. 2002. 58.
  4. Croft-Murray, Edward. Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837, Volume One: Early Tudor to Sir James Thornhill. London, 1962. 50-60.

Full research report available on request.