This generous gift from Mr James Fairfax is a particularly significant addition to the Gallery’s collection, which, though strong in Dutch and Flemish art, has not until now included a mythological work of this kind, nor a painting by this important artist.
Jacob Jordaens, one of the three great names of seventeenth-century Flemish baroque painting, enjoyed a long working career. A pupil of the painter Adam van Noort, he became a master in the Guild of St Luke when he was still in his early twenties and is recorded as painting until the very last year of his life.
The subject of Mercury and Argus is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1, 668–706), which describes the complicated story of Io, who, having caught the amorous attention of the god Jupiter, is transformed by him into a heifer to avoid the anger of his jealous wife, Juno. Jordaens’s composition shows lo as the cream-coloured heifer to the right. Mercury, who has lulled the herdsman Argus to sleep by playing his flute, now draws his sword and is about to decapitate him.
The subject was first painted by Jordaens in 1620 in a work now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. The compositions in the two works are identical but the present painting is smaller and is thought to have been made for a connoisseur. Jordaens painted several variations on this subject. Michael Jaffe dates the Melbourne painting to c.1635–40.