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Abraham Govaerts

Vertumnus and Pomona

Copper: 37,5 x 54 cm
1620
Signed and dated A. GOVAERTS 1620

introduction

Dated 1620, this copper panel is a mature work by Abraham Govaerts. In a Eden-like setting, the painter illustrates a mythological scene with the figures of Vertumnus and Pomona. According to the legend told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Vertumnus, the god of orchards and wine, who had the power to change his appearance (from the Latin vertere: to change), fell in love with Pomona, the lovely Roman goddess of fruit (from the Latin pomum: Apple). Distrustful of men, the beautiful goddess secluded herself within the walls of her green gardens. In order to attract Pomona's attention and seduce her, Vertumnus successively assumed the form of a reaper, a mower, a winemaker, a fisherman, a soldier and finally, an old woman. Through his virtuoso telling of the tragic love story of Anaxarete and Iphis, the disguised Vertumnus is able to gain her favour.

A mythological subject celebrating fertility and abundance, the respective attributes of the two gods hold many symbolic references. The watering can adds a metaphorical dimension in its suggestive morphology, the watching monkey, an animal counterpart to mankind, is about to bite into the forbidden fruit, at the very moment when Pomona attentively listens to the stories told by a poorly disguised Vertumnus, while the door of the pavilion-temple behind them opens as if to reveal the rest of the story. This subject was very popular during the Renaissance and particularly in the seventeenth century among the painters of Catholic Antwerp: offering a perfect excuse for representing a woman unclothed. Among the most beautiful paintings of the subject is certainly the composition by Frans Francken the Younger at the Louvre; it is possible that Govaerts was influenced by this artist. The two works share the same lush vegetation, the wheelbarrow and the cart, as well as the view of the landscape ending with a small fountain. However, Govaerts devotes extreme attention to the depiction of the fruits and animals, which constitute a still life in their own right within the scene.
In this picture, in which every element is used to underscore the theme, it is surely the originality of the subject within the body of work of Govaerts and the brilliant handling of the details that makes it a masterpiece. The minute rendering of the fruit and flowers instantly ranks Govaerts on a par with Jan "Velvet" Brueghel, as does the lyricism. His skills as a colourist also rival this master who may have been his teacher. However, it is distinctive in the use of deeper tones, which are denser in the foreground, while the rest of the view fades into a hazy light in a decorative composition. This theme would have been highly prized in the private collectors' cabinets of Antwerp in the first half of the seventeenth century.

Provenance :
Robert Finck Gallery, Brussels;
Galerie De Jonckheere;
Private collection.

Littérature :
Thierry, Y., Les peintres flamands de paysage au XVIIe siècle. Des précurseurs à Rubens, Brussels, 1986, p.219;
Exhib. Cat. Gärten und Höfe der Rubenszeit im Spiegel der Malerfamilie Brueghel und der Künstler um Peter Paul Rubens, Thomas Fusenig; Ursula Alice Härting, Münich, Hirmer, 2000, n°119;
Härting, U., Borms, K., Abraham Govaerts, der Waldmaler (1589-1626), BAI, 2004, n°17 p. 83, ill. p.107.

Expositions :
Brussels, Foire des Antiquaires, galerie Robert Finck, 1965, n°7.