H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929
Not on view
The story of the old shepherd Battus, who, having witnessed Mercury's theft of a herd of cattle, promised not to disclose the secret, is recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (II: 668 ff.). When tested by the god, shown here in the guise of a young shepherd, he pointed to the foot of the mountain where the cattle were hidden. Mercury then turned him into a stone. The picture was once attributed to Poussin. Its authorship is established by an engraving bearing Millet's name.
Millet was born in Antwerp and active in Paris from 1659, where he began his career making copies after Old Master paintings and of some more contemporary works—including those of Poussin—for a private collector. He was particularly influenced by Poussin’s landscapes, which made a lasting impression on him, and he also appears to have picked up the thick impasto technique of Poussin’s brother-in-law and pupil, Gaspard Dughet.
Although artists frequently turned to Ovid as a source for subject matter, the story of Mercury and Battus (Metamorphoses 2: 668 ff.) is rarely represented. According to the story, Mercury steals Admetus’ cattle, which are being tended by Apollo, and is discovered by the shepherd Battus. Mercury swears the shepherd to silence, but to test his loyalty, the god returns in disguise. Mercury is shown here at the right, disguised in shepherd’s dress, while to his left the hapless Battus, unable to recognize him, points to the spot where the herd is being kept. As punishment Mercury will transform him into a stone. The only other contemporary example of the theme, Claude Lorraine’s painting in the Orléans Museum, shows an earlier moment in the story, at the time of Battus’ first encounter with Mercury.
A number of Millet’s paintings, including the present work, have been identified through twenty-eight engravings made after them by “Théodore,” possibly the artist’s pupil. Our picture was engraved by him in reverse (see Robert-Dumesnil, Le peintre-graveur français, vol. 1, p. 263, no. 23, second state) under the title “Deux Bergers,” and also by Chiboust. Both engravings identify the artist as Millet. Sterling (1955) notes that Millet painted a series of twenty-six subjects from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and suggests that this picture belonged to the set. A much smaller version of the same subject by Millet appeared in the Fabre sale (Le Brun, Paris, January 6–8, 1814, no. 23) and in the sale of the Didot collection (Hôtel de Bullion, Paris, March 28 f., 1814, no. 79).
The immense, craggy mountain framed by trees that serves as the background here calls to mind Poussin’s 1648 Landscape with Polyphemus in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
[Mary Sprinson de Jesús 2010]
François Laborde de Méréville, Paris (until d. 1802; sale, Le Brun, Paris, 22 thermidor, an XI [August 10–13, 1803], no. 76, for 4,800 livres to Le Brun); Villers (until 1812; his sale, Le Brun, Paris, March 30, 1812, no. 34, for Fr 6,000 to Le Brun); Lafontaine or Varroc-Lafontaine, Paris (bankruptcy sale, Henry and Laneuville, Paris, May 28, 1821, no. 50; for 8,000 livres, bought in; second sale, Henry, Paris, December 10–12, 1822, no. 29); Mr. and Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, New York (1907; purchased in Italy through A. E. Harnisch with MMA 29.100.20 for 15,000 lire the pair); Mrs. H. O. (Louisine W.) Havemeyer, New York (1907–d. 1929)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition," May 8–August 1920, unnumbered cat. (p. 10, as "Orpheus Asking the Way to Hades," by Poussin, lent anonymously).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The H. O. Havemeyer Collection," March 11–November 2, 1930, no. 92 (as "Orpheus Asking the Way to Hades," by Poussin) [2nd ed., 1958, no. 165].
Paris. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "La Peinture française du XVIIe siècle dans les collections américaines," January 29–April 26, 1982, no. 72.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "France in the Golden Age: Seventeenth-century French Paintings in American Collections," May 26–August 22, 1982, no. 72.
Art Institute of Chicago. "France in the Golden Age: Seventeenth-century French Paintings in American Collections," September 18–November 28, 1982, no. 72.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection," March 27–June 20, 1993, no. A374.
Charles Blanc. Le trésor de la curiosité. Vol. 2, Paris, 1858, pp. 212, 347, describes this picture, Mercury and Battus by Francisque Millet, as in the Laborde de Méréville sale of 1802 and in the Lafontaine sale of 1821 [see ex. coll.].
A. E. Harnisch. Letter to Mary Cassatt. January 30, 1907 [see Ref. Stein and Wold 1993, p. 358], believes this picture and MMA 29.100.20 [Style of Nicolas Poussin, Orpheus and Eurydice] came from the Talleyrand collection.
"French, English, and American Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 15 (September 1920), pp. 202–3, notes that it was lent to the Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition with a companion piece, Orpheus and Eurydice [MMA 29.100.20, Style of Nicolas Poussin], and maintains that each shows an episode from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Frank Jewett Mather Jr. "The Havemeyer Pictures." The Arts 16 (March 1930), pp. 464, 467, ill. p. 449, as by Poussin; sees this and MMA 29.100.20 as the greatest pictures in the Havemeyer collection.
H. O. Havemeyer Collection: Catalogue of Paintings, Prints, Sculpture and Objects of Art. n.p., 1931, pp. 164–65, ill., as "Orpheus Asking the Way to Hades," by Poussin.
Walter Friedlaender inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 27, Leipzig, 1933, p. 326, as Orpheus asking the way to Hades, attributed to Poussin but probably by an imitator.
Anthony Blunt. "The Heroic and the Ideal Landscape in the Work of Nicolas Poussin." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 7 (July–December 1944), p. 165, refers to this picture as "Orpheus asking the way to Hades," traditionally attributed to Poussin and close to his manner, but engraved as a Francisque Millet.
Martin Davies. Bulletin de la Société Poussin 2 (1948), p. 26, publishes a print of this composition by Théodore, in which Millet is named as its author; observes that the print is entitled "Deux bergers" but more probably represents Mercury and Battus; provides some provenance for the picture.
Charles Sterling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. Vol. 1, XV–XVIII Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, pp. 92–94, ill., notes that the little known engraver, Théodore, said to have been a pupil of Millet, reproduces this composition faithfully, naming Millet as the author (Robert-Dumesnil, Le peintre-graveur français, I, p. 263, no. 23, second state, under the title Deux Bergers); observes that Millet is known to have produced a series of twenty-six subjects from [Ovid's] Metamorphoses, and suggests that this picture belonged to the set; remarks that a much smaller version of the subject by Millet appeared in the Fabre sale in 1813, and in the sale of the Didot collection in 1814.
Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, pp. 209–10 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].
Pierre Rosenberg. "France in the Golden Age: A Postscript." Metropolitan Museum Journal 17 (1982), pp. 25, 32, no. 72, notes that a small copy (38 x 67.5 cm) was sold at Finarte, Rome, March 30, 1982, no. 114 (ill.), with an attribution to the school of Jan Frans van Bloemen.
Pierre Rosenberg. France in the Golden Age: Seventeenth-century French Paintings in American Collections. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1982, pp. 162, 291–92, 365, no. 72, ill. pp. 183, 291 [French ed., La peinture française du XVIIe siècle dans les collection américaines, Paris, 1982], notes that it is not possible to date the painting, as nothing is known about Millet's stylistic development or chronology; observes, however, that his career spanned little more than fifteen years.
Frances Weitzenhoffer. The Havemeyers: Impressionism Comes to America. New York, 1986, pp. 178, 255.
Ann Sutherland Harris inClaude to Corot: The Development of Landscape Painting in France. Ed. Alan Wintermute. Exh. cat., Colnaghi, New York. 1990, p. 76, sees in Millet's unusual choice of theme a desire to find "new or rarely represented subjects around which to build his grandly conceived landscapes".
Susan Alyson Stein inSplendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1993, p. 244, pl. 242.
Gretchen Wold inSplendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1993, p. 358, no. A374, ill.
Bernard Biard. "Les paysages de Francisque Millet." L'estampille, L'objet d'art no. 307 (November 1996), pp. 74–75, ill. (color), suggests this composition was inspired by Poussin's "Hercules and Cacus" at the Pushkin Museum [Moscow] or by his "Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun" [MMA 24.45.1].
This picture was engraved in reverse by Théodore (Robert-Dumesnil, Le peintre-graveur français, vol. 1, 1835, p. 263, no. 23, second state, under the title Deux Bergers) and by Chiboust, both naming the artist as Millet.