Jacob de Wit (Amsterdam 1695-1754 Amsterdam) Jupiter and Callisto

Jacob de Wit was apprenticed to Albert van Spiers, a painter and decorator of Amsterdam canal houses. His parents decided in 1710 to move to Antwerp where a rich uncle and merchant took care of Jacob’s education. From 1709 to 1711 he was apprenticed to the historical painter Jacob van Hal, and from 1711 onwards he drew from live models at the Royal Antwerp Academy. In 1713-1714, he was registered as a master at the Guild of Saint Luke. In Antwerp the artist studied the works of Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens’ thirty-nine ceiling paintings in the Jesuit Church impressed and influenced de Wit greatly. He made thirty-six drawings, copies of this famous ceiling painting which was destroyed by fire in 1718.

Around 1715-1716, de Wit returned to Amsterdam and started to work as a portrait painter, even though he was actually more interested in historical painting. He began receiving commissions for historical paintings from the Roman Catholic churches as well as from private citizens. He decorated numerous residences. Jacob de Wit became courtpainter for the Moses and Aaron Church (until the 19th century, this Franciscan church possessed the largest collection of paintings made by Jacob de Wit in the period 1710-1749). Among his works for the church, he created a further six ceilings paintings for the library in 1729. He became the favorite painter of the Roman Catholic churches in Amsterdam.

His first profane commissions came from the wealthy Cromhout family. In 1718 he painted ten ceiling pieces for the residence of Jacob Cromhout. These paintings were strongly influenced by Rubens and Jordaens. These different commissions brought fame to the young artist. From then on Catholics and non-Catholics competed to obtain his services. Most of his commissions came from the province of Holland, primarily from wealthy patrons in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Leiden, and also from the city of Utrecht. His fame was limited mainly to this market. De Wit was the best representative of the decorative painters who ornated town and country houses of well-to-do patricians with decorative ceilings, wall panels, over-door and over-mantel paintings in the first half of the eighteenth century. De Wit was also well known for his beautiful, highly finished drawings commissioned by collectors. Especially sought-after were these representing putti and cherubs which were considered ideal. Jacob de Wit also created drawings for book illustrations. After his death in 1754, one of his pupils, Jan Punt, engraved and edited a series of drawings made by his master.

The present drawing representing Jupiter and Callisto together with its pendant Jupiter and Mnemosyne are related to a pair of paintings by de Wit, commissioned as wall decoration in 1727 by the wealthy, catholic merchant and banker Jan Baptist de Surmont, Lord of Vlooswijk, for his country seat Loenen aan de Vecht and now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.[1]

The pendant drawing Jupiter and Mnemosyne is with The Art Institute of Chicago.[2]

A drawn composition sketch for these two paintings, carefully annotated by de Wit, was previously with Colnaghi's, London (1968-1969).[3]

Our drawing, executed six years after the painting of the Rijksmuseum, was commissioned by Jonas Witsen (1705-1767). This information is provided by an inscription on the back of the preparatory drawing of our composition which is in the Gemeentearchief, Amsterdam.[4]

The preparatory drawing to our pendant is in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.

Our drawing is typical of the artist's delicately finished drawings for private collectors. The subject of Jupiter and Callisto has sometimes been recorded as Diana and Callisto since it describes a scene of Ovid’s Metamorphosis (2:442-453) and Fasti (2:155-192) where Jupiter is disguised as Diana to seduce Callisto, one of Diana’s nymphs, expected to be as chaste as the goddess herself. Diana eventually discovered the pregnancy of the nymph and the jealous Juno changed her into a bear. The nymph would have been devoured by the dogs hadn’t Jupiter taken her up to heaven.

The iconography of our drawing is typical of the seduction moment when Jupiter bends over the nymph. But contrary to the painted version now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Callisto seems to doubt and resist Jupiter’s advances, adding psychological tension to this graceful drawing. The composition of our sheet is quite different from the painting. The eagle symbolizing Jupiter is smaller and less visible in our drawing, the putti more numerous, and there is a stag-hunting scene in the background, probably involving the true Diana. The greyhounds on the left and right now both look towards the centre, subtly guiding the spectator’s attention towards Jupiter and Callisto. Where a modest foliage functions as repoussoir in the painted version, the foliage has been prominently replaced by Diana’s hunting equipment in our drawing, which is beneficial to the balance of the composition. Putti and cupids, elegant poses, graceful attitudes, decorative elements like the beautiful red drapery, the rocks and tree setting correspond to the decorative purpose of this commission.

Indeed, the theme of Jupiter’s love affairs and his transformation into animals, satyr, a shower of gold or clouds to seduce his preys (Europa, Leda, Antiope, Danae, Io) was a fashionable theme for interior decoration and decorative painting during the Rococo period all over Europe.[5]

Scenes of courtship, mythological inspiration and pastoral settings were typical of the taste of the time. In the evolution of his style de Wit was certainly influenced by this new preference for light grace, easy movement and fresh colors in contrast to the former heavy baroque compositions. Our drawing is not only a witness of the lost decorative art of its time, but it is also a beautiful and delicate piece of collection, in which lays the spirit of the Rococo.    

Izaäk Schmidt (1740-1818) copied after our drawing.[6][7]



[1] Jacob de Wit, Jupiter, Disguised as Diana, Seducing the Nymph Callisto.
Oil on canvas, 240 x 205 cm. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, inv. no. SK-A-3885

[2] Jacob de Wit, Jupiter and Mnemosyne.
Pen and brown and black ink, brush and brown and grey wash, watercolour, heightened with white, traces of graphite, 449 x 310 mm. The Art Institute of Chicago, inv. no. 2013.1047

[3] cf. R.J.A. te Rijdt, "Jacob de Wit", in Delineavit et Sculpsit, March 1997, no. 17, pp. 60-1

[4] This drawing was formerly in the Rudolf Collection (L.2811b) and sold by Christie’s, Amsterdam, 12
November 1990, lot 178. The inscription reads: “Vor de Heer Jonas Witsen/schepen/met Corikeuren

[5] For example the bedroom of the Princess of Soubise in the Hôtel de Soubise, Paris, was decorated with paintings and low-relieves on the same theme.

[6] Izaäk Schmidt, Jupiter disguised as Diana and Callisto.
Brush and black ink, watercolour, 263 x 180 mm. University Library Leiden, inv. no. PK-T-AW-4809

[7] Many thanks to Jef Schaeps for bringing the drawing by Izaäk Schmidt to my attention.
Correspondence by e-mail, 9 March 2023.

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