Rembrandt Van Rijn is renowned as a painter of historical and classical scenes from antiquity, and one of his most famous works is his depiction of the character Danaë from Ancient Greek mythology. As the story goes, the mythical King Acrisius of Argos was bitterly disappointed not to have any male heirs. Desperate for advice on how to bolster the line of royal succession, he consulted the oracle at Delphi who gave him the unwelcome news that his daughter Danaë would eventually bear a son who would one day kill him.
Intent on keeping his daughter childless, King Acrisius locked Danaë in a subterranean dungeon, or bronze tower depending upon the interpretation, and ensured that she was guarded day and night. Unfortunately King Acrisius’ didn’t take into account the ability of Zeus, the God of Sky and Thunder, to sneak into Danaë’s prison in the form of a shower of gold and impregnate her. She gave birth to the hero Perseus, and King Acrisius arranged for them both to be placed in wooden chest that he cast into the sea. As mythical figures are wont to do, they survived this improbable range of circumstances, and Perseus grew up and eventually killed King Acrisius by accident with an errant discus throw during a set of athletic games. During the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, Danaë was seen as a cautionary tale about the corruption of wealth and the loss of moral virtue, and by the 1900s she was being used in art as a symbol of divine transcendence and love.
Rembrandt wasn’t the first to paint an allegorical version of the tale, nor would he be the last. Correggio created a version in 1531, Titian of course created an entire series of works about the character of Danaë in the mid 16th Century, and Gustav Klimt created a typically erotic rendition in 1907. Rembrandt’s oil painting of Danaë was created in 1636 and seems to be a depiction of the point in the tale in which she welcomes Zeus into her bed chamber. The painting is one of Rembrandt’s most epically scaled works at eight feet by ten feet in size, and indeed the painting’s almost inconvenient size has been hypothesised as a possible reason as to why he never sold it. It is also possible that he felt that it was a deeply personal work – Rembrandt’s wife Saskia van Uylenburgh was the model for Danaë, although he later changed the face to that of his mistress Geertje Dircx, showing that he could have his cake and eat it too.
The painting is housed at the Heritage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, and it is now a prime example of the spectacular work done by those in the art restoration business. In 1985 the painting was badly damaged after a man threw sulphuric acid on the canvas and cut it twice with a knife. Much of the central portion of the canvas, including Danaë’s face, hair, right arm and legs, was turned into an incomprehensible mess of dripping paint. However, after 12 years of painstaking, microscopic reconstruction Rembrandt’s canvas went back on display in 1997 looking none the worse. The subtle skin tones, warm lighting and the intimacy of the scene have all been preserved and Rembrandt’s wife/mistress looks as good as she did in 1636.