This unpublished painting surfaced at an American auction a few years ago, and since then it has undergone thorough restoration.1 Though it is unsigned, this is unquestionably a work by Jacob van Loo, who was originally from Sluis in Flanders.2 Today a little-known artist, Van Loo worked in Amsterdam, where he produced portraits and genre pieces as well as history paintings such as the one discussed here. In the 1650s, Van Loo was regarded as one of the finest painters in the city. In 1660 he fled from Amsterdam following a brawl at an inn. Since he was sentenced to death in absentia, Van Loo settled in Paris, where he was admitted to the Académie. He remained there until his death in 1670.3
Anyone who looks at Van Loo’s history paintings is bound to conclude that he had a penchant for drawing and painting nudes. This painting revolves around the story of Danaë, the daughter of Acrisius, king of Argos. After an oracle foretold that she would give birth to a murderer, her father locked her up under the watchful eye of an old nurse. But Zeus assumed the form of a shower of golden rain and entered the chamber through the cracks in the roof; he impregnated Danaë, and in due course she gave birth to Perseus. The prophecy was eventually fulfilled when Perseus accidentally killed his grandfather with a throw of the discus.
In the visual arts, Danaë unfailingly personifies chastity and virtue, although she appears to have acquired a more erotic flavour in this painting.4 Van Loo has painted Danaë here on her bed, as she was frequently depicted in the seventeenth century, with the old maidservant at her side. By raising a red curtain, this old woman is presenting the scene of the nude Danaë to the viewer, as it were, thus imparting a mildly erotic atmosphere to the painting.5 On the left, we see Zeus intruding in the form of golden rain.6 While Rembrandt depicts Danaë receiving the golden radiance with mixed feelings – the woman seems torn between shock and joy7 − in Van Loo’s painting she appears oblivious to the event, and indeed to be in rather a drowsy state. Her white skin contrasts beautifully with the multi-coloured sheets. Her figure is undoubtedly based on a life study.8 We are reminded of the artists’ circles in Amsterdam where making nude studies was a common activity; there are accounts of such practice sessions in Rembrandt’s studio. Archival documents record that Van Loo too worked from live nude models.9 The preliminary study for the figure of Danaë has recently been discovered in the collections of the Print Room of the Leiden University (fig. 1).10
The painting discussed here is undated, but it was almost certainly made when Van Loo was still living in Amsterdam: probably in or around 1655-1660. In the same period, the artist produced a second signed painting with the same subject and on a canvas of the same size, but in a vertical format (fig. 2).11 In this picture, which Van Loo signed, we see Zeus entering not as a golden shower, but in the form of gold coins, a frequent variant in seventeenth-century paintings.