The Judgment of Paris
This large painting portrays the decisive moment that directly caused the Trojan War. We see a scene set at the wedding of King Peleus and the stunningly beautiful Nereid, Thetis. Zeus had invited all the Gods to Olympus for the celebrations, except for the belligerent Eris, whose presence he feared would cause trouble. Naturally, Eris did not take this well, and she disrupted the festivities by placing a golden ball with the inscription “To the fairest one” on the table. This caused an argument between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, who all claimed the ball as their rightful due. Zeus refused to become embroiled in the dispute, and sent the three goddesses to Paris to settle the issue. Hermes presented the problem to Paris, who accepted the task. All three goddesses sought to convince the young man to choose them: Hera, as the goddess of power, promised him the greatest riches and all of Asia to rule. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, offered him unequalled martial prowess and the power of the deepest wisdom. The goddess of love, Aphrodite, sought to win him over with flattery, proclaiming him the most handsome man in all of Phrygia. Naturally, the most handsome man deserved only the most beautiful of women, and so she promised Paris the love and conquest of Helen, the most beautiful woman on Earth but also wife to Menelaus, King of Sparta. This offer convinced Paris, and he awarded the golden ball to Aphrodite, leaving Athena and Hera bitterly offended.
When Paris subsequently travelled to Sparta, Aphrodite made good on her promise, ensuring that Helen immediately fell in love with Paris and left her husband for the Trojan prince. Melenaus flew into a rage when he received the news, and with the help of his brother Agamemnon set sail for Troy with a thousand ships to take back his wife. Thus began the Trojan War.
This painting of the Judgement of Paris, attributed to Gerard de Lairesse, is a previously unpublished work by the famous late seventeenth-century painter, who enjoyed immense popularity in Amsterdam. De Lairesse specialised in large decorative paintings on canvas, such as ceiling pieces and works for use in wall panels. This large painting can be considered part of that genre as well. De Lairesse created such paintings for his rich clientele, which included prominent figures such as mayors, rich merchants and the stadtholder.
Towards the end of 1689, De Lairesse was struck completely blind from one day to the next. He did not give up in the face of this enormous setback, however, and started giving paid lectures about the art of painting. These lectures were further worked out in text form, leading to the publication of two treatises by his hand: Grondlegginge der Teekenkonst (Principles of the Art of Drawing) and Groot Schilderboek (Grand Book of Painting).
De Lairesse primarily painted historical pieces. As he personally explained in his theoretical texts, all painting must satisfy certain conditions, such as the ideal proportions of the figures, various genders and ages, and above all the actions of each figure. De Lairesse’s works tend to contain little visual depth; he generally portrayed the subject as larger-than-life in the foreground, ensuring that the viewer’s attention was entirely drawn to the event and the manner in which they are depicted. De Lairesse’s figures are emotional in nature, always clearly communicating how they feel about the event through gestures and facial expressions. Such eloquent characters feature in all of his paintings.
Various elements in this painting are also found in other works by De Lairesse. For example, there are striking similarities with two other paintings by his hand, now on display in Pavlovsk Palace in Saint Petersburg, Roy p. 74 and p. 21. The trim on Paris’s tunic is identical to that of the woman on the left-hand side of the painting, and Paris’s hair and the naked back of the crown-bearing Hera are the same as Venus and Adonis. Also, Paris could be a twin to P.71, found today in Rome’s Galeria Colonna, dated 1675.
The putto peeking out from under Paris and Aphrodite’s hands reveals De Lairesse’s fondness for putti, and resembles various putti in several other paintings dating from the period 1675-1680. One example is the painting An Allegory of Music, in Salamanca (Roy p. 99).
The fact that De Lairesse painted so many putti in this period likely has to do with events in his own life: he had four children between 1668 and 1679, three sons and a daughter. A self-portrait of a young De Lairesse (reproduced below as a mezzotint by Pieter Scheen) shows that they took strongly after him in appearance.
The Judgment of Paris demonstrates De Lairesse’s skill in classic composition and Baroque grandeur, with all of the rich colours and dynamic motion that are so typical of his oeuvre. It is an excellent example of De Lairesse’s ability to elevate classic mythology to a grandiose and elegant visual spectacle.
Alain Roy, Gerard de Lairesse 1640-1711, Arthena Paris, 1992