Gillis Coignet, The Rape of Europa
Private Collection, France
Born in Antwerp in 1542, Gillis Coignet was the son of a goldsmith and instrument maker. He learned the basic elements of his art with Lambert Wenselyns (active circa 1553) and probably with Antoon van Palermo (1503 or 1513 – circa 1559), an art dealer who, according to van Mander, gave him a home for a time. In 1561 Coignet became a member of the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp, a town he left a little later for Italy. He first went to Sicily then Terni, where he painted frescos with an artist called Stello. Coignet was registered at the Academy in Florence in 1568 but must have returned to Antwerp in 1570, as he is mentioned between that year and 1585 in the registers of the Guild of St Luke, becoming its Doyen in 1585. A year later, with the arrival of Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, he moved to Amsterdam, becoming a citizen of that town in 1589. Shortly thereafter he went to Hamburg, where he died on 27 October 1599.
Coignet's travels in Italy left him strongly influenced by the works of Titian, whose vigorous and bold style he adopted in his early pictures such as, for example, his first signed and dated work, Portrait of Pierron de la Hues (1581; Antwerp, Museum of Fine Arts).
Karel van Mander1 recognised Coignet's exceptional talents as a colourist and particularly appreciated the nocturnal scenes which the artist liked to heighten with light touches of gold. Only one of these nocturnal scenes has reached us, A Lottery in Amsterdam (1592; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), but a Saint George (1581; Antwerp, Museum of Fine Arts) presents the gold highlights mentioned by van Mander. Coignet sometimes called on the collaboration of talented colleagues such as Cornelis Molenaer (1540-1589) or Tobias Verhaecht to paint the background of his landscapes. The corpus of Gillis Coignet's authentic work is quite small since we know that he sometimes passed his students' work off for his own after having merely added a few strokes. Our painting dates from the artist's last period, when he was working in Hamburg. It can be compared with Landscape with Saint John the Evangelist at Patmos2, now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, or Saint George Killing the Dragon in the Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts, where the same mannerism as in our picture is perceptible in the female figure - a mannerism reinterpreted a few years later by one of his best pupils, Cornelisz van Haarlem (1562-1638).
In Greek mythology Europa was the daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre. Jupiter fell in love with her and, disguising himself as a white bull, came to where she played by the seashore with her attendants. Beguiled by the bull’s good nature, she garlanded its horns with flowers and climbed upon its back. Jupiter straight away bore her out to sea and off to Crete where, resuming his normal shape, he ravished her.
1 Het Schilder-Boeck (1603-1604).
2 Oil on panel, 133 x 191 cm (52 3/8 x 75 1/4 in.); dated 1598.