Where? Gallery 258 of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
When? Between 1611 and 1618
What do you see? A muscular Prometheus is laying on the rocks. His left hand is chained to a rock. He has a white and blue cloth underneath him that barely cover him. Prometheus is depicted in the light, and there is a strong color contrast between him and the dark colors around him. In particular, the eagle is painted fairly dark and represents the evil force that he has attracted by stealing fire from the Greek gods and giving it to the humans. Prometheus looks at the eagle, who has his wings spread out and it looks like the eagle makes Prometheus almost fall of the rocks (though he is kept in place by the chains). The large beak of the eagle rips open the skin of Prometheus and takes the liver out of his body. The claws of the eagle are placed on his face and near his groin to emphasize the pain that Prometheus suffers. The pain is emphasized by the expression of agony on his face, the clenched fist of his left hand and the curled toes. These features draw similarities to the statue of Laocoön and His Sons in the Vatican Museums. On the bottom left you can see a small fire burning, which refers to the fire that Prometheus has given to the humans.
Backstory: This painting is based on the mythological story of Prometheus. According to the myths, Prometheus created a clay figure of a human and went on to steal fire from Mount Olympus. He gave the fire to the humans. Prometheus is being punished for stealing the fire from the gods. As a punishment, Zeus chained him to a rock on Mount Caucasus and made sure that and eagle would eat his liver. As Prometheus is immortal, his liver would grow back every day, and the eagle would come every day to eat it again. The eagle in this painting is painted by Frans Snyders, who was a specialist in depicting animals. Rubens liked this painting because of the strong emotional response it triggered among viewers. Therefore, he decided to keep this painting for himself for a long time.
Who is Prometheus? In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan (an immortal Greek deity with incredible strength). He is the creator of the humans and has given fire to the humans by stealing it from Zeus on the Mount Olympus. Zeus hid the fire for humans, and after discovering that Prometheus had stolen the fire, he decided to punish Prometheus as depicted in this painting. The eagle was the symbol of Zeus himself. Prometheus suffered this punishment for hundreds of years until Hercules killed the eagle and freed Prometheus.
Other Paintings on this Topic: The story of Prometheus has inspired many artists over the centuries. In particular, due to the painting of Rubens, several artists have created their artworks on Prometheus. In 1642, Jacob Jordaens created a fairly similar version of this painting, with the main difference that he included Hermes in his painting to signal that there was hope for Prometheus to be freed. This painting is in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne. In 1762, Nicolas-Sébastien Adam created a statue of Prometheus which is now in the Louvre. In 1847, Thomas Cole created a different type of painting showing Prometheus bound to the rocks on top of a mountain. This painting is now as the De Young Museum in San Francisco.
Who is Rubens? Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was born in Siegen, in Germany. In 1589, he moved back with his mother to Antwerp, where his family originally came from. Between 1600 and 1608, Rubens traveled through Italy and got inspired by the Italian artists. He started his trip in Venice where he was particularly impressed by the works of Titian. He learned from Titian’s work how to use colors to express emotions in his paintings. He also traveled to Florence and Rome where he got inspired by the works of Michelangelo. He learned from Michelangelo’s work how to design a painting and how to design the human figures in a painting. In Italy, he also became familiar with the works of Caravaggio from who he learned how to effectively use the contrast between light and dark in a painting. In 1608, he returned to his native Antwerp. He was appointed as court painter of the Low Countries, and he set up a large studio in Antwerp.
Who is Snyders? Frans Snyders (or Snijders) was born in 1579 in Antwerp and also died there in 1657. He was an expert in painting animals, hunting scenes, and still lifes. An example of the animals that he painted can be seen in the Wild Boar Hunt. He often collaborated with painters such as Jordaens, Rubens, and Van Dyck. He assisted particularly often in the works of Rubens, usually by including fruit or animals in the paintings. Sometimes, Rubens would create the rest of the painting first and sketched the area where Snyders’ should contribute his part. However, for this painting, Snyders started by painting the eagle and Rubens completed the painting.
Fun fact: The Philadelphia Museum of Art commissioned Locust Moon Press in 2015 to create a comic book based on this painting by Rubens. The idea was that Prometheus could be seen as a superhero and a comic book would appeal to the younger generation. Ten great comic book artists created their versions of the Prometheus painting through illustrations. The result is not so much appealing to children, but to a wide audience. More information on the comic book can be found here.
Written by Eelco Kappe