Dosso Dossi (Giovanni de Lutero) (Italian, ca. 1486–1541/42)
Oil on canvas
30 1/2 x 44 in. (77.5 x 111.8 cm)
Maria DeWitt Jesup Fund, 1926 (26.83)
This painting is one of Dosso Dossi's finest surviving landscapes. The subject of the painting has been a matter of some debate, and its current title derives from the three pairs of figurestwo children, two young adults, and two older menwhich may be symbolic of the three stages of life. This interpretation is questionable on two counts. First, that the boys seem to be spying on the amorous couple (who also must contend with the goats pressing in against them) implies a narrative unified in time, rather than completely separate vignettes. Then, technical evidence shows that the old men were painted over the already completed vegetation and thus may have been afterthoughts.
The historian Paolo Giovio, a contemporary of the artist, made a distinction between Dosso's "proper works" (justis operibus)that is, those with serious subjectsand his landscapes, which he called parerga, embellishments meant to delight and refresh, without any deeper purpose. As Giovio knew, such an approach had a direct precedent in the work of the ancient Roman artist Studius, as described by Pliny, which added to its cachet. Dosso and his patrons, Duke Alfonso I d'Este above all, would have been aware of, and appreciated, this classical parallel.