The Judgment of Paris

by Ludovico David, Swiss 1648-1728
Oil on Canvas. 1690

Size: 68” x 96 ”

Research by Willem van Osnabrugge, 02/29/2000

“Provenance: Said to have come from the Hermitage, St. Petersburg (possibly with their inventory number (1) inscribed on the painting).”

Ringling Museum acquisition in 1998. SN 11033.

Ludovico David (1648 – 1728?) was born in Lugano. Although the Museum card mentions Switzerland, my research shows that at the time of his birth the State of  Ticino with the capital Lugano was still part of the Holy Roman Empire (3, 4). David received his early training in Milan and later in Venice. He also traveled to Bologna and studied for a short period with Carlo Cignani. In 1686, when he was 38, he moved to Rome, where he lived for the rest of his life.

David was always challenging the art establishment, playing down the importance of life drawing (and drapery studies) making it secondary to the painter’s own ideas (the design versus the color debate).

Although most of David's paintings are now lost or unidentified, two letters written by him in 1691 and 1704 give extensive details about his life and work. The Judgment of Paris painting, datable to his later Roman years reveals the influence of Carlo Cignani. Here, David couples late Roman classicism with the more sensuous plasticity of the earlier Bolognese artists, while also showing a taste for the dramatic lighting and chiaroscuro that came from the Milanese tradition (2)(5).

The story is well known (6). Philandering  Zeus was told by Mother Earth to better watch out, because Thetis (one of his many mistresses) would bear a son, stronger than his father. Therefore, all the gods decided to keep Thetis away from Zeus and that she should marry Peleus (a mortal). When the gods came from Mount Olympus to celebrate the wedding, the goddess Strife threw a golden apple among the guests, announcing that it should be awarded as a prize to the most beautiful of the three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. But nobody was willing to take the responsibility of judging among them. Zeus finally appointed Paris, who was minding his father's flock on Mount Ida. All three goddesses offered him bribes. Hera offered to make him ruler of all Asia; Athena offered him wisdom and victory in all his battles; Aphrodite offered him the love of Helen, wife of Menelaus, the most beautiful woman in the world. He gave the apple to Aphrodite: the result was that he got his girl and the Trojan war followed to get her back.

Lets go back to the painting and see if we can recognize the elements from the story.
Paris: has just told his decision, but is not happy with it. agony, eyes, staff
Hermes: round hat + wings (normally on feet), messenger of Zeus, pointing
Aphrodite: smirk on face (how do you paint that from the back?), she has this magic girdle (if the Victoria Secret or Playtex Company only knew)
Eros, illegitimate son of Ares, smiling, "Hey, what are you looking at?"
Athena: goddess of war, red colors, can't miss her as an army commander in front. Shield with head of Medusa (turned people into stone). She had given a (mirror) shield to Perseus to decapitate Medusa. Painters always made such a shield when portraying Athena. It was her trademark.
Hera (white armed): Wife of Zeus. Very confident. Looks at you and says "Hey, what are you looking at". Lower your eyes. I'm a goddess. Athena, but especially beautiful Hera was in rage. Here is where the expression "Hell hath no fury like a goddess scorned" comes from. Hera was scorned and furious.

Of all the facial expressions, the one of Paris is most pronounced. He is in agony. He knew that whatever choice he made, he was going to be the enemy of two of the three goddesses. He did not want to do it. But you also see that Zeus told him to do it. Zeus was too much of a coward himself to do it. (The painter probably depicts Hermes, who -depending on which story one reads- accompanied the three goddesses to Paris, but for all intents and purposes, it is Zeus who is orchestrating the play here).

Aphrodite has a little smirk on her face. She knew that she would win. She was born with this magic girdle, that can make anybody fall in love with anyone. (If only the Playtex or Victoria's Secret companies knew about this girdle). And look at Eros (Aphrodite's son), he has the most fun of all.

Hera is keeping her composure. She is so insulted. She is Zeus' wife and she lost. Unfortunately we don't see what happened soon after this moment and for how long Hera could keep her composure, but all hell broke loose. Hera was in rage. Here is where the expression "Hell hath no fury like a goddess scorned" comes from. Hera was scorned and furious.

Final Observation:
The story on the Museum card is confusing. Since the Roman goddesses' names are used on the card, the name Athena should be corrected to Minerva. Also, because Minerva was a goddess of many things, it might be better to describe her as the goddess of war, since she is shown in the painting in her battle gear.

Bibliography and Comments:
(1). However, I can tell by the way the number “786” has been painted, that it was not done by a Continental European, but probably by a Brit or American person.
(5). Dictionary of Art. David p.563
(6). The Illiad. Various references.