The Discovery of Erichthonios by the Daughters of Cecrops
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

The Discovery of Erichthonios by the Daughters of Cecrops, 1613-1615

Oil on panel., H. 0.37 m; W. 0.50 m

On the verso, wax seal of the Colas de Marolles collection.

Provenance: Colas de Marolles family Collection
Probably Van Schorrel Sale, Antwerp, 1774
Dr. Victor Bloch Collection, Vienna (as Peter Paul Rubens)
Sale XVIII, Gilhofer & Ranschburg, Lucerne, 30/11/1934, lot 40
Sale H. W. Lange, Berlin, 18-19/11/1938, lot 180
From the end of the 1930s in a private collection in West Germany
Sale Lempertz, Cologne, 18/11/2006, lot 1133 (as Peter Paul Rubens).

  • Antoine Seilern, Flemish Paintings and Drawings at 56 Prince’s Gate, London 1955, p. 41-43, no. 22.
  • Andor Pigler, Barockthemen: eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, t. II (Profane Darstellungen), Berlin, 1956, p. 77.
  • Julius Samuel Held, The oil sketches of Peter Paul Rubens: a critical catalogue, Princeton, 1980, t. I, p. 318-319, no. 231 (as Peter Paul Rubens and possibly the first version).
  • Michael Jaffé, Rubens, Catalogo Completo, Milan, 1989, p. 208, no. 319 (as a contemporary copy after the bozzetto formerly in the Seilern collection, now at the Courtauld Institute, London).
  • Johann Kräftner, Peter Paul Rubens – The Masterpieces from the Viennese Collections, Vienna, 2004, p. 131, no. 29.
  • Fiona Healy, « Mythological Subjects », Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, t. XI forthcoming.


M. J. Friedländer (as Peter Paul Rubens)
G. Glück (as Peter Paul Rubens)
R. Eigenberger (1931), as Peter Paul Rubens (“unzweifelhafte eigenhändige Studie des Peter Paul Rubens”) (the original of this certificate has disappeared, but it is cited in the literature)
Prof. Dr. Justus Müller-Hofstede, Bonn (as Peter Paul Rubens).
Hans Vlieghe who examined the painting de visu in 2006, considers it to be the authentic work of Peter Paul Rubens and places it as being the equivalent in quality to the London version.
A dendrochronological examination of the wood panel in 2006 carried out by Prof. Peter Klein, Hambourg, recorded that the oak was felled between 1610 and 1619.

This freely executed oil sketch is striking because of the confidence of its execution, the inventiveness of its composition and the spontaneity of the touch, all characteristic of the art of Peter Paul Rubens. The subject is take from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which describes the myth of Erichthonios, son of the god Hephaestus, who would become the fourth legendary king of Athens.

Hephaestus tried to rape the virgin goddess Athena. As she succeeded in escaping from him, Hephaestus’s sperm fell on the ground and was picked up by Gaia, the goddess of the earth who gave birth to Erichthonios. She entrusted him to Athena who then gave the child, enclosed in a box, to the daughters of Cecrops, Pandrosos, Herse and Agraulos while forbidding them formally to open it. The sisters neglected the goddess’s instructions, opened the box and found Erichthonios, whose body ends in a snake’s tail. The creation of the Panathenean games is attributed to Erichthonios and the invention of the four wheeled chariot on which Zeus the raised him to the sky to make the constellation of Auriga.

The subject of the “discovery of Erichthonios” is quite rare in Baroque iconography and this proves, according to J. Kräftner “the great humanist culture that Rubens possessed, and in particular his knowledge of the ancient authors by whom he owned a very large number of works in his vast library at Antwerp.”

In his analysis Friedländer considered our painting to be like “a very lively and remarkable sketch by Rubens for a painting conserved in the Liechtenstein Gallery in Vienna”.

Robert Eigneberger, director of the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna, gave an opinion set out in his certificate of 1931: “the sketch with the study of the composition “the daughters of Cecrops and the little Erichthonios” of which a life sized painting is in the collection of the princes of Liechtenstein in Vienna and a second version at Belvoir Castle which I have not seen in the original, is in my view a study unquestionably made by the hand of P. P. Rubens. My verdict will not change, even if a second or third preparatory sketch appears, since the light touch of this sketch could never be attributed convincingly to one of his studio assistants.”Gustave Glück, a great connoisseur of Rubens considered our painting to be “apparently the initial study by the master for the painting in the Liechtenstein Gallery. Perhaps it is the sketch from the van Schorel auction in Antwerp in 1774.”

Julius S. Held had an opinion similar to Friedländer, Glück and Eigenberger. In comparison with the sketch for the same painting conserved at the Courtauld Institute, he considered our painting to be more lively and detailed. But not knowing it in the original, he identified, with reservations, the Courtauld Institute version as the prime version. In 1980, Held gave the following opinion on our painting: “This sketch of Cecrops’s daughters was accompanied by certificates from M. J. Friedländer and Gustav Glück, both very positive in attributing the picture to Rubens. Count Seilern states in his catalogue that he has never seen that picture and it is also unknown to me, except for the reproduction in the catalogues of the sales of which the 1938 one is the better. The sketch of the former Bloch collection was clearly a work of considerable quality and in some details appears to have been more precise (…).”

Certain details are definitely weaker in the Courtauld Institute version. The finished painting is differentiated from the two sketches by several details. It is only in the final painting that Rubens places the little Cupid between the three sisters. He looks towards Herse, the most beautiful of the sisters who would later have an affair with the god Hermes. Hermes is represented in the form of a stone statue in the park. The servant, already present in our painting, becomes the figure of an old nurse, who emphasizes that Herse will give birth to Cephalus, the fruit of their union.

In 1980, Julius S. Held wrote about the fascination for the oil sketches of Rubens: “The oil sketches particularly appeal to the modern beholder. They are admired because of the delightful spontaneity of their execution, the economy of the colours, the sense they convey of a boundless and yet marvellously controlled imagination, and the ability of the artist to condense, within the confines of very small surfaces, compositions which in their final form very often covered entire walls (…).”

The dendrochronological examination of the panel by Prof. Peter Klein, Hamburg has revealed that the tree used was probably felled in the period 1610-1619. Given the minimum period of two years for stocking before use, it can be assumed the painting was executed in the years 1613-1619. Dr. Hans Vlieghe, one of the greatest Rubens experts of our time, formerly of the Rubenianum, Antwerp, has also seen the painting in the original. He believes that it is of similar quality to the painting in the Courtauld Institute, London and he has no doubt about its authenticity.