The Rape of Helen
Vincent Malo was born ca. 1602 in Cambrai, in the region of French Flanders. The date of his birth is not recorded; however, the registers of the parish of San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome record that the painter died there on the 14th of April, 1644, “di età di anni 42 in circa” – about 42 years old. Malo was active in Antwerp from around 1623 – the year he is first recorded in the local guild of St Luke. According to Raffaele Soprani, the Italian aristocratic art historian whose Delle vite de’ Pittori, scultore ed Architetti Genovesi was published in 1674, Malo was first trained by David Teniers the Elder and then by Rubens. It can safely be argued that Malo indeed did spend some time in Rubens’ workshop, as the latter’s influence on Malo’s oeuvre – especially his early work – is abundantly clear. (Furthermore, Malo seems to have had access to drawings from Rubens’ Cantoor.) Recorded students of Malo include Flups Mertens and Jakes Clasens (both have left no known works) and the still-life painter Isaac Wigans. Vincent Malo collaborated with other Antwerp artists, such as Gysbrecht Leytens and Andries van Eertvelt, painting the figures in their land- and seascapes. Seventeenth-century art inventories mention several works by Malo owned and sold by collectors and dealers in Antwerp.
Malo was last recorded in the guild of St Luke in 1634; that same year he probably went to Genoa. There, he stayed for some time with Cornelis de Wael, another artist from Antwerp who had settled there with his older brother Lucas in the 1610’s. Malo and de Wael were to collaborate, as was also noted by Cornelis de Bie in his compilation of artist biographies, the Gulden Cabinet der Edel Vry Schilderconst, which was published in 1661. In his entry on the artist, de Bie wrote that Malo’s art “niet te verbeteren (is)” and “wel staen mach op het toneel van Picturas uyterste Wetenschap” – very high praise indeed!
Malo seems to have had a predilection for crowded, energetic compositions full of movement and colour, taking his cue from works such as Rubens’ Battle of the Amazons. Indeed, Malo produced many versions of the same subject, as is attested by contemporary sources and extant works in private collections and museums. The present work fits into the same category: an epic mythological battle, depicted vibrantly, full of action and movement. It depicts the story of The Abduction of Helen. Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships”, was, according to ancient mythology, the most beautiful woman in the world. After Paris had chosen Aphrodite as most beautiful goddess (the story of the Judgement of Paris), she, in return, had promised him any woman he wanted could be his. Paris chose Helen, undeterred by the fact that she was already married to Menelaos, the king of Sparta, thus setting off a chain of events that would lead to the epic battles between Greeks and Trojans recounted in Homer’s Iliad.
The oak panel on which it is painted is stamped by the guild of panel makers and signed by the panel maker; therefore a terminus post-quem of 1617 can be established. As Vincent Malo left for Italy in 1634, the painting must be dated somewhere between 1617 – 1634. Stylistically, it can be dated more precisely to sometime in the early 1620’s. Quickly painted in sometimes thin brush strokes, often wet-in-wet, it gives the appearance of an oil sketch in some parts, although it was intended as a finished product in its own right. The composition, too, is an original invention of the artist, although it shows many echoes of Rubens work and style. As it is one of the only known signed works from the early period of the artist, it may be considered a very important addition to the oeuvre of this long-neglected artist.
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