The Rape of Europe1628 - 1629. Oil on canvas, 182.5 x 201.5 cm.
Rape of Europa is a faithful copy made by Peter Paul Rubens in Madrid after an original by Titian. It shows the Phoenician princess Europa after she was abducted by Zeus, who had taken on the form of a white bull. The fearful princess, barely holding on to one of the bull´s horns, was taken to Crete, where she bore Minos. The story was told by several ancient sources, among them Ovid (43 BCE-CE 17/18), in his book Metamorphoses (II, 833-75). The posture of the abducted woman, with one breast exposed, exploits the erotic potential of the event. In late August of 1628, Rubens was summoned to Madrid to inform Philip IV of Spain, about diplomatic negotiations then taking place between Spain and England in which he was involved. The trip turned into a nine-month stay, during which Rubens made copies of many of the more than fifty paintings by Titian then in the Spanish Royal Collections. Among them was Titian´s original Europa, which hung in the king´s private summer apartments, the Cuarto bajo de verano (Lower Summer Quarters) in Madrid´s Alcazar Palace. This work, as well as other copies after Titian, was taken by Rubens to Antwerp upon his return in the spring of 1629. Several factors prompted Rubens to focus on Titian during his stay in Madrid, among them, most personally, his own interests and development as a painter. In the years immediately before traveling to Spain, Rubens gradually abandoned the carefully drawn and modeled forms found in his earlier works, which made his figures seem monumental and sculptural. Instead, he embraced a more sensuous style, in which forms are suggested through unblended brushstrokes and the rich use of color, as well as a more erotic interpretation of subject matter, for which Titian provided an essential precedent. In Spain, Rubens´s encounter with Titian´s art, especially his late works, confirmed and accelerated this painterly transformation. Rape of Europa exemplifies how Rubens both steadfastly followed Titian´s model but also departed from the Italian painter in his rendering of the female body. By employing a different technique in the depiction of Europa´s flesh, especially in the use of cool gray half-tints, and emphasizing the suppleness of her skin, Rubens demonstrated his own unique approach to form and color. Many of the paintings by Titian that Rubens copied in the Spanish Royal Collections were mythological scenes with erotic content, which, in turn, stimulated the king´s taste for this type of work by the Flemish master. In the 1630s, Philip IV commissioned similar works by Rubens for his palaces, and when the painter´s collection was put up for sale following his death in 1640, Philip IV purchased many works that depicted nudes, among them the Three Graces and the sensuous Garden of Love. He also acquired the Rape of Europa and some of the other copies after Titian that Rubens had made in Madrid and kept in his collection, including Diana and Callisto, Diana and Acteon, and Venus and Adonis. For reasons unknown -possibly stemming from practical concerns related to the movement of works of art within the different royal palaces around Madrid- Rubens´s Rape of Europa was not among those in the royal collections that were removed from public view during the eighteenth century because of excessive nudity. It was also absent from the palace´s sala reservada, where such works, including many by the artist, were housed in the Prado following the opening of the museum in 1819. After hanging in the royal collections from the time of its arrival in Madrid, the picture was in the Prado by 1834 (when the museum was known as the Real Museo de Pinturas) (Text drawn from Vergara, A.: Splendor, Myth, and Vision. Nudes from the Prado, 2016, pp. 116-119).