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‘The Shepherd Paris’
Treasure of the Month - February 2009

‘The Shepherd Paris’

Sir Anthony van Dyck (Antoon van Dyck)

Van Dyck’s painting of the Shepherd Paris is an arresting and mysterious work. The half-length figure of a beautiful young man stands out from the dark background, his bright blue cloak exposing his left shoulder and arm. The shepherd’s staff and the shimmering golden apple identify him as Paris, the prince and shepherd from Troy. Nothing seems to distract from his presence, but his posture makes it clear that he is part of a larger story: while his body is turned left, the young shepherd dreamily looks to the right at something invisible to us.Paris was the son of Priam, king of Troy, and of Hecuba.  When pregnant, Hecuba had a dream that she gave birth to a firebrand.  This was interpreted as foretelling the destruction of Troy, of which Paris would be the cause. The shepherd Agelaus was ordered to kill the infant but secretly raised him as his own son. Paris was later ordered by Jupiter to award a golden apple to the goddess he considered the most beautiful of Juno, Minerva and Venus. He chose Venus when she offered him, Helen, the most beautiful woman on earth. Helen, however, was married to Menelaus and her abduction by Paris caused the Trojan War and ultimately the destruction of Troy.Van Dyck depicted Paris in the act of choosing as indicated by the golden apple. As a highly unusual decision, the painter omitted the three beautiful goddesses.  Paris thus seems mesmerized by what he is seeing while we are not permitted a glimpse. Van Dyck puts the emphasis entirely on the act of choosing and all its consequences (we are witnessing the first step towards the destruction of Troy and the founding of Rome), but is also suggesting that ideal beauty is imagined rather than seen.The unusual concentration on the shepherd and his youthful beauty has soon led to the assumption that the painting might be a self-portrait of the painter.  While there is nothing in his traits resembling van Dyck as he is known to us from other portraits, the painting might still be considered a symbolic self-portrait of an artist, a man seeking beauty.The painting can probably be identified with a work in the collection of the marquis de Voyer d’Argenson in the mid-eighteenth century. (A porphyry vase and its plinth from the same collection can be seen in the main staircase.) Whilst we know nothing about a possible patron for the painting, it now is generally accepted that van Dyck painted this work c.1629/30, shortly after his return from Italy, when he was under the strong spell of Titian. Titian’s “Perseus and Andromeda” hanging next to the “Shepherd Paris” was once in van Dyck’s own collection.

Tate Britain is holding an important exhibition on “Van Dyck and Britain” from 18 February.  

Further Reading

  • Jo Hedley: Van Dyck at the Wallace Collection, London 1999, pp. 79-103.Fiona Healy: Rubens and the Judgement of Paris: A Question of Choice, Turnhout 1997 (Pictura Nova 3). 

© The Trustees of the Wallace Collection, 2009. Text by Christoph Vogtherr