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The Abduction of Helen
Tintoretto, Jacopo Robusti
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Tintoretto, Jacopo Robusti

Venecia, 1518 - Venecia, 1594

The Abduction of Helen

1578 - 1579. Oil on canvas, 186 x 307 cm.

Helen’s move from Sparta to Troy is described very differently in the two oldest narratives. In the Iliad, Homer describes Helen’s reticence to abandon Menelaeus, suggesting she was kidnapped by Paris. However, in his Ephemeris Belli Troiani (fourth century BC), Dictys Cretensis describes her departure as the willing flight of a woman in love. Both versions are represented in sixteenthcentury Italian painting. Helen’s voluntary flight was depicted by Giulio Romano at the Sala di Troia in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, in 1538-39, while her kidnapping appears in a fresco by Raphael at the Palazzo Capodiferro (now the Palazzo Spada) in Rome, which was engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi and reproduced in a drawing by Andrea Schiavone. Jacopo Tintoretto follows Schiavone and Raimondi in his depiction of Helen being taken to a ship while fierce combat occurs on the shore, but distances himself from them by characterising the scene as a battle between Turks and Christians, drawing on the prolific images of this sort that followed the battle of Lepanto in 1571. In that sense, he portrays Helen as an allegory of Venice itself.

The abduction of Helen, c.1578-79, is contemporaneous with Tintoretto’s Gonzaga cycle, 1579-80, and immediately prior to his Sala Terrena at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, painted between 1582-87. This explains why some of its figures reappear in those groups.

Here, Tintoretto sharply contrasts the marked chiaroscuro in the foreground with a brightly lit background in which the figures lose their solidity, to the point of becoming mere arabesques. This approach reappears in some of the Sala Terrena paintings in San Rocco, including the Adoration of the Magi.

Tintoretto creates an extraordinarily dynamic composition that depends on its colour and chiaroscuro, and on the postures of the figures. Especially striking is the contrast between the helpless, pleading expression of Helen, who is practically in tears, and the virile violence of her captors. The fact that Tintoretto added the masted ships at the very end, clearly painting them over the figures, indicates the degree to which his main concern was the relations between the different characters.

In this work, as in others he completed at the time, Tintoretto used a dark primer, on which he outlined some of the figures in white lead. Such is the case with Helen, who was originally depicted nude. There are also small pentimenti, significantly in her face, which once looked to the right.

The abduction of Helen is from the Gonzaga collection and was possibly commissioned by Vincenzo I Gonzaga (Duke of Mantua between 1587 and 1612), who paid Tintoretto a monthly retainer between 1590 and 1593. However, given his constant skirmishes with the Turks, the Duke may have purchased this work, which Tintoretto painted years earlier, for its theme.

From the Gonzaga collection it passed to King Charles I of England, whose inventory lists it as The rape of Helen by old Tintaret. Following the monarch’s death, the work was purchased in October 1652 by John Jackson, who soon sold it to Spanish ambassador Alonso de Cárdenas for Prime Minister Luis Méndez de Haro, who gave it to King Philip IV. It is listed in the 1666 inventory of the Alcázar Palace, Madrid, and entered the Museo del Prado in 1819 (Falomir, M.: Italian Masterpieces. From Spain´s Royal Court, Museo del Prado, 2014, p. 82).


Technical data

Inventory number
Tintoretto, Jacopo Robusti
The Abduction of Helen
1578 - 1579
High/Height: 186 cm.; Width: 307 cm.
Royal Collection (Royal Alcázar Palace, Madrid, “salón de los espejos-cuartos principales”, 1701-1703, nº 12)

Bibliography +

Berenson, Bernard1865-1959, The venetian painters of the renaissance: with an index to t, Nueva York.Londres G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1894, pp. 137.

Dyke, John C.Van, Madrid. Critical Notes on the Prado, Nueva York Charles Scribners'Sons, 1914.

Osmaston, F.P.B., The art and genius of Tintoret, Londres G.Bell and Sons Ltd., 1915, pp. 51.

Bercken, Erich von der, Jacopo Tintoretto, Munich R.Piper, 1923, pp. 194.

Pittaluga, Mary, Il Tintoretto, Bolonia Nicola Zanichelli, 1924, pp. 276.

Hadeln, D, Jacopo Molino : The Burlington Magazine Publicati, 1928, pp. 226-231.

Janson, Claire, L'influence de Tintoret sur Rubens LES BEAUX-ARTS.SOCIETE D EDITION ET, 1938, pp. 83.

Les chefs-d'oeuvre du Musée du Prado: exposition, Musée d'ar, Ginebra Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, 1939.

Coletti, Luigi, Il Tintoretto, Bergamo : Istituto Italiano D'Arte Grapiche, 1944, pp. 130-131.

Tietze, Hans, Tintoretto. The Paintings and Drawings, Londres Phaidon, 1948, pp. lám. 245.

Tüngel, Richard, 400 Jahre Kunst, Kultur, und Geschichte im Prado, Zurich Schweizer Verlagshaus, 1964, pp. lám. 103.

Vecchi, Pierluigi de, L' opera completa del Tintoretto, Milán, 1970, pp. 130-131.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Museo del Prado: catálogo de las pinturas, Madrid Museo del Prado, 1972.

Bernari, Carlo, La obra pictorica completa de Tintoretto, Barcelona Noguer, 1974.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Museo del Prado: pintura italiana anterior a 1600, Madrid Gredos, 1979, pp. 212-213.

Museo Nacional del Prado., Museo del Prado : catálogo de las pinturas /, Madrid Museo del Prado,, 1985.

Museo Nacional del Prado., Museo del Prado : catálogo de las pinturas /, Madrid Museo del Prado,, 1985, pp. 691-692.

Orso, Steven N., Philip IV and the decoration of the Alcazar of Madrid, Princeton Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. 72, 82, 84, 100, 109, D-19.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Museo del Prado: inventario general de pinturas, Madrid Museo del PradoEspasa Calpe, 1990, pp. nº774.

Pallucchini, Rodolfo, Tintoretto: le opere sacre e profane Electa, 1990, pp. 219-220 L.XXVIII il.527.

Checa Cremades, Fernando, Tiziano y la monarquía hispánica: usos y funciones de la pin, Madrid Nerea, 1994, pp. 279, n. 71.

Bettagno, Alessandro, El Museo del Prado, Madrid Fonds MercatorFundación Amigos del Museo del Prado, 1996, pp. 251.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Pintura italiana del Renacimiento: guía, Madrid Museo del PradoAldeasa, 1999, pp. 264.

Morselli, Raffaella dir., Gonzaga. La Celeste galeria. Le raccolte, Milano Skira, 2002, pp. 193-194.

Lapenta, Stefania, Le collezioni Gonzaga : la quadreria nell'elenco dei beni de..., Milán : Silvana, 2006, pp. 260.

Dir. Falomir, M, Tintoretto, Madrid : Museo Nacional del Prado, 2007, pp. 347-351.

Luna,J.J., Guerra y pintura en las colecciones del Museo del Prado. s.XVI a Goya : Consejo Superior de Investigacion, 2009.

Sogliani, Daniela, Massimamente delle cose di Constantinopoli. I Gonzaga e i turchi nei documenti dell' Archivio di Stato di Mantova dalla metá del Cinquecento al sacco della città. Bulzoni, 2013, pp. 155-182 [165 f.9].

Falomir Faus, M., Jacopo Tintoretto 'The abduction of Helen' En: National Gallery of Victoria Thames & Hudson, 2014, pp. 82.

Other inventories +

Inv. Testamentaría Carlos II, Alcázar de Madrid, 1701-1703. Núm. 12.
Salon de los expejos / Quarto prinçipales [...] 12 / Yttem quatro quadrod iguales sobre los expejos todos originales de Tinttoretto , el Vno el Robo de elena, el ottro Judiq y olofernes el otro de Piramo y Tisbe = Y el ottro de Benus y adonis de a dos Varas y quartta de altto y mas de tres de Ancho tasadas a quinienttos Doblones Cada Vna hazen Dos mill ... 2000

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1854-1858. Núm. 774.

Inv. Real Museo, 1857. Núm. 774.
Tintoretto. / 774. Batalla de mar y tierra. / A la derecha se ve una barca en la cual un turco atraviesa de una lanzada el cuerpo de un soldado que quiere abordar la chalupa. Al otro lado, en otra barca medio derribada por un vaiven, se ve una hermosa joven descompuesta y con el pecho descubierto sostenida por un hombre armado. Un personage, que parece ser el raptor de la joven, tiene cogida una parte del schal que la cubria, y un turco a su lado dispara un dardo hacia el peloton de combatientes. En el fondo se ve una encarnizada batalla, con varios ginetes medio sumergidos en las ondas. / Alto 6 pies, 8 pulg; ancho 11 pies.

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1872-1907. Núm. 410.

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1910. Núm. 399.

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1942-1996. Núm. 399.

Exhibitions +

Maestros italianos. Melbourne
16.05.2014 - 31.08.2014

La Celeste Galeria dei Gonzaga. Il Museo dei duchi di Mantova tra Mantegna, Rubens e Guido Reni
07.09.2002 - 08.12.2002

Location +

Room 025 (On Display)

Update date: 15-12-2015 | Registry created on 28-04-2015

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