Rembrant: The Abduction of Europa

The Abduction of Europa: Rembrandt

The Abduction of Europa is a 1632 Mythological painting by Dutch Golden Age artist Rembrandt. It is one of the five forays by Rembrandt into myth, specifically, the event described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: the kidnapping of princess Europa by the god Zeus transformed into a bull.

This scene depicts the abduction of Europa by the Roman God Jupiter (the white bull)charming the young Europa into joining him in a faraway land that will eventually be named for her.

The painting constitutes Rembrandt’s international High Baroque take on this classical subject, ideally viewed in comparison with Titian’s Rape of Europa (c. 1560) of which the Dutch master was clearly aware. The dull tonalities of Titian’s artwork are exchanged by Rembrandt, ‘Titian of the north’, for a characteristically Baroque abundance of pigment and stark oppositions of darkness to light.

Rembrandt’s exquisite command of color and reflection in The Abduction of Europa is to be admired in the little gulf between the bull with Europa and the riverbank. We realize we are witnessing a virtuoso attempt at naturalism, essentially alien to Titian’s conception of similar artwork.

In Rembrandt’s composition, crucially, the bull with Europa on top does not occupy the foreground. In fact, the two characters appear in the lower left corner, no greater in size than the three maids and the coach driver who feature on the left. This last group, alongside the horses and their carriage, fills out the broad space along the bank, with their expressive gestures and fine clothes.

It will be seen that Rembrandt’s version takes an opposite orientation to that of Titian’s: right-to-left rather than left-to-right. The human figures, due to their different spatial disposition compared to Titian’s painting, also configure a structure that is the mirror image of Titian’s. The riverbank is on the left and exceptionally broad; with its trees, it occupies more than half of the whole.

Rembrandt’s Europa is not represented in the midst of a struggle. More sedately, she is riding the bull as if it were a horse, her backward torsion and expression of concern being the only elements of her own person that tell us we are witnessing a dramatic scene. As is typical of the Baroque, all of the human figures are attired in contemporary Dutch costumes. The clothing itself — so worried and scant in Titian’s edition — contributes to the characteristic richness of Rembrandt’s style.

The great detail which Rembrandt bestows upon every segment of his artwork — particularly the water reflections and the naturalistic plant life on the left — corresponds to the strong preference of his Dutch contemporaries for just such flourishing scenes. What communicates to us at once that we are witnessing a highly dramatic event are the black shadows cast by Europa and her maids. This is made possible, by a typically Baroque device, because a source of light from the left has invested the scene in just the right moment.

Rembrandt thus achieves a dramatic mood without pursuing at all, as Titian had done, the theme of sexual outrage.

Once more in opposition to Titian, whose painting of The Abduction of Europa was primarily an exhibition of craft, Rembrandt’s Abduction may have sought to weave an allegorical plot relating to Jacques Specx, wealthy Dutch merchant, into the picture.

Specx was the commissioner for this painting. According to an interpretative line that reaches back to art critic Karel van Mander (1548-1606), the Oriental coach driver to the right and the fantastical coach itself may be a reference to Specx’s establishment of a trading center in Japan and his later governorship of Jakarta, Indonesia.

The port that we observe in the far distance, outlined in bleak detail, may represent a Dutch port as well as the Phoenician one of Tyre, Europa’s hometown. We seem to observe a crane lofted above the skyline — an instrument that is not known to have existed in the ancient world. The port could therefore constitute an allusion to Dutch mercantile voyages toward far-off lands, and thereby to Specx again.

Finally, the very concept of a prized ‘possession’ being displaced from the Orient and brought into Europe (the Netherlands or Crete) may itself be a minute allegory of the colonial enterprise.

Because of The Abduction of Europa’s gendered nature — Europa becoming victimized because of her femininity — this particular act of mythical violence has often been the subject of feminist and postcolonial scholars. In traditional depictions of this event, only the act of abduction itself is ever portrayed. The sexual violence that no doubt followed upon the abduction was ostensibly considered of trivial symbolical value.

Rembrandt’s The Abduction of Europa can be found in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which acquired the painting in 1995. It is considered to be one of the masterworks of the museum.

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