Mercury and Argus is a painting by Jacob Jordaens, painted around the year 1620. It is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon (oil on canvas 202 x 241 cm).
Jacob Jordaens (also known as Jacques Jordaens) was born in Anvers, United Provinces of the Netherlands, in 1593. He was brought up in a rich family and received a good education, proven by his biblical and mythological knowledge. In 1620, he painted Mercury and Argus and started collaborating with Van Dyck and Rubens.
The Mayor of Lyon Jean-François Termes acquired the artwork in 1843 for the sum of 2,000 francs (1,990 USD). It was restored in 1991 and was lent to the Petit Palais during the exhibition "Jordaens (1593-1678), la gloire d'Anvers" from September 19, 2013 to January 19, 2014.
The painting refers to the myth of Mercury, Argus (Argos) and Io, found in The Metamorphoses written by Ovid (I, 583 ; IX, 687) :
Jupiter (Zeus) falls in love with Io, who is the daughter of Inachos, as well as a priestess of Hera. But Jupiter's wife Hera investigates and finds out about their relationship. Jupiter has to transform Io into a beautiful, white heifer in order to save her from Hera's wrath and in the meantime transforms himself into a bull. Hera understands his strategy though and demands the heifer as a present. To end their affair, Hera puts Io under the guard of Argus Panoptes, her shepherd, who has 100 eyes. Jupiter commands his son Mercury (Hermes) to set Io free by lulling Argus to sleep with an enchanted flute. Mercury, disguised as a shepherd with a herd of stolen sheep, is invited by Argus to his camp. Mercury charms him with lullabies and then cuts his head off.
"Thus Argus lies in pieces, cold, and pale; And all his hundred eyes, with all their light, Are clos'd at once, in one perpetual night. These Juno takes, that they no more may fail, And spreads them in her peacock's gaudy tail."
Io, cursed by Hera, has to escape and goes away to Egypt. Io will become the Egyptian goddess Isis.
The framing is narrowed; the canvas is cut on the right-hand side and leaves no area to the scenery. The heifers are located on the superior part of the painting and it is difficult to distinguish them because their traits become confused. Their bodies form an upside down triangle and form, along with the bodies of the characters, a chiasmus (heifer, human, human, heifer) that appeals to the eye. The background is in fact a foreshadow of the murder; the colours of the sky and the bushes are dark, and three of the heifers are looking at the spectator.
Mercury, disguised as a barefooted young shepherd with a straw hat, is gazing at Argus (who, unlike the myth, has only two eyes) and is about to strike a lethal blow. Argus is asleep, his hand on his stick. Argus' dog is also present, but seems sheepish and impassive.
In fact, the dog is looking at the hidden knife under Mercury's leg. Mercury's movement with his knife, from the bottom to the top in a circular way, is highlighting the impression of movement and reinforces the suggested dramatic tension.
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