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Mercury About to Behead Argus (work of art)

Artwork Info

Created
circa 1770 to 1775
Nationality
Italian
Birth/Death
1728-1781
Dimensions
86 1/8 x 53 7/8 inches (218.8 x 136.8 centimeters)

Credit

Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest), in memory of Robert Lee Humber, 1983

Object Number
83.2
Culture
European Italian
Classification
Paintings
Department
European to 1910

Key Ideas about this Work of Art

  • Mercury About to Behead Argus is part of a series of paintings depicting a classic story from Roman mythology. Argus, the giant guarding Jupiter’s mistress, is lulled to sleep and beheaded by Mercury who was sent to rescue her.
  • Mercury is the Roman god of commerce, travelers, and trickery. He is identified by his winged cap and winged ankle bracelets.
  • Artist Ubaldo Gandolfi was trained in the Bolognese school of painting, in which human figures have body parts that look like those of actual people. In this school of painting, artists often drew from live models.
  • Gandolfi introduced an element of humor to his painting by having Mercury gesture directly to the viewer to be quiet, to avoid waking the sleeping giant.
  • This painting was commissioned for the palace of the Marescalchi family in Bologna, Italy.

Learn More

Mercury About to Behead Argus was commissioned by the Marescalchi family for their palace in Bologna, Italy. This painting and Mercury Lulling Argus to Sleep are part of a series of six paintings that illustrate classical Roman myths. The two paintings illustrate consecutive moments in the same story. In Mercury Lulling Argus to Sleep, Mercury, wearing a winged cap and winged ankle bracelets, puts Argus to sleep by playing his flute. In Mercury About to Behead Argus, the artist adds a touch of humor by having Mercury gesture to the viewer to be quiet so they do not wake the sleeping giant.

The Gandolfi family, made up of Ubaldo, his brother Gaetano, and his nephew Mauro, were among the last famous painters of the Bolognese school. The school became internationally famous at the end of the 16th century. The Bolognese school of painting focused on realistic depictions of human anatomy and drawing from live models.

The story depicted in these paintings comes from Roman mythology. Io (eye-oh) was a princess who was seduced by Jupiter, king of the gods. To conceal his infidelity from his wife, Juno, Jupiter changed Io into a white heifer (young female cow). Juno was suspicious of Jupiter and asked for the heifer as a gift, a request that Jupiter could not easily refuse. His wife placed the heifer under the guard of Argus, a giant with 100 eyes (whom Gandolfi chose to depict with only two eyes in this painting). Jupiter sent Mercury to rescue Io from Argus. To make the Argus fall asleep, Mercury played music on his flute and then cut off the sleeping giant’s head.

tags: narrative, mythology, communication, identity, power, variation, conflict

Additional Resources

Resources for Teachers: 

  • Read a blog post about the story of Argus, which includes an excerpt of the original story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • Learn more about Mercury in the context of ancient Roman religion.
  • Read an article about a painting titled Feast of the Gods and learn more about Roman mythology in art

 

Resources for Students:

Images

  • An oil painting of a male figure wearing a winged cap and carrying a sword, sneaking up on another male figure who is sleeping. The first male figure gestures to the viewer to be quiet.

    Mercury About to Behead Argus