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Jupiter's Return as the Sun King

by Corynn Loebs

painting - “The Nurture of Jupiter”
“The Nurture of Jupiter”, Nicolas Chaperon, 1640s. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Nurture of Jupiter, completed in the 1640s by the French Baroque painter Nicolas Chaperon (1612-1656) depicts the upbringing of Jupiter, the son of Saturn, by nymphs and shepherds in an idealistic and secluded setting (“Nicolas Chaperon”). The mythology of Jupiter tells of the appetite of Saturn, father of Jupiter, who devoured his children to prevent them from succeeding him. Jupiter’s mother, Ops took action to save her child by sending him to the island Crete where he was raised by nymphs and shepherds. The context and time of Jupiter’s upbringing references the Golden Age of Rome as recorded by Hesiod in his monograph, Works and Days (c. 700 BC). Hesiod’s work described the five Ages of Man, the first of which belonged to the gods and was a period marked by prosperity and bounty as well as celebration of the pastoral that declined as man’s ties to the land weakened (Hesiod). As a painting made in the service of exemplifying French political and autocratic values of the time, the copying of a classical myth endorses the comparison of authority between Classical Rome and the new monarchy. The centrality of food to the upbringing of Jupiter also relates to Louis as the first successor who would greatly reduce the power of the ancient feudal nobles, which in turn lessened the communal peasantry lands as ideas about feasting in court shifted.

The centerpiece of the painting depicts Jupiter suckling milk from a goat and enjoying the fruits of the abundant natural resources, signified by two honey combs lying at his feet. These basic foods, the rich diet of a god and a complete contrast to the cannibalistic diet of his father, place him in opposition to contemporary values of Chaperon’s time of meat eating as indispensable to the modern diet. Three women and a man attend to Jupiter; one woman holds the goat’s leg in the crook of her arm while another holds a bowl and watches over Jupiter. The third woman picks fruit from a tree while a little girl eagerly tugs at the contents of the woman’s basket. A man struggles with the horns of a goat, alluding to the rape of Jupiter and echoing the masculine anxieties of Saturn which are contained and controlled here between man and animal as opposed to the possibilities of competition between father and son. The upward point of the goat horn draws the eye to the woman picking fruit, creating a cornucopia effect which alludes to the plentitude of the island.

The particular myth would have been an appropriate parallel to the young Louis XIV, whose future rule was considered questionable at the time as similar to the situation of Jupiter as he waited out his youth, his future unknown. The hope for Louis to restore France from a tumultuous time period echoes in the inclusion of the two shepherds, the former who is more in balance and reliant on nature and the latter who is closer to the sea and further from the nourishment of nature. This suggests that while the surface of the painting’s subject matter celebrates pastoral bliss, abundance, and intimations of utopia, underneath lays the threat of danger embodied by the rape of nature and cannibalism of Saturn. The right side of the painting alludes to this underside: a shepherd reclines and plays the pipes, an allusion to the god of the woodland, Pan, looking downward with a furrowed brow. The painting recedes to a lone shepherd in the background surrounded by his herd, hinting at the tensions of reliance on livestock rather than natural bounty to survive that will follow the Golden Age. The composition suggests the decline of man from a shepherd with relative freedom to the more complicated life of the shepherd in the back tending to his flock. The background of mountains and water in the distance also suggests the idea of the almost utopian space of the island Crete, where Jupiter is nourished away from the threat of being devoured by his father.

Another intersection between ancient and contemporary thought deals with the feud in France between Nicolas Poussin and Rubens. The techniques and ideologies of Poussin, the leading painter of France at the time, and Rubens were in competition to become exemplars for other artists as well as for the monarch. Poussin’s Classical view was judged more favorably than Ruben’s realist style; therefore, Poussin’s style became a model for Chaperon, among many other French artists of the seventeenth century (Fleming 610). The favoring of Poussin’s style over Rubens’ mirrors the outcome of Saturn’s and Jupiter’s conflict: although Jupiter is a threat to his father’s rule he does not succeed him. While the young Louis does become king and relegates the feudal nobles to accessories of the monarchy which makes way for the powerful aristocratic families, his reign symbolizes a turning back to the idealized days before the fall of man as described in Hesiod’s work. Louis’s centralization of power attempts to return France to an earlier period through nostalgia for a golden age, which will bring about a new prosperous age through his reign as the Sun King.


Works Cited:

Fleming, John, and Hugh Honour. The Visual Arts: A History. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000. 610-13. Print.

Hesiod. Theogony; and, Works and Days. Trans. Catherine M. Schlegel and Henry Weinfield. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 2006. Print.

“Nicolas Chaperon.” Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, n.d. 29 Oct. 2010.



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