The rape of Europa is recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Jupiter, who was enamoured with the mortal princess Europa, the daughter of Agenor, King of Tyre or Sidon in Phoenicia, changed himself into a white bull and mingled with a herd of cattle, while Europa and her attendants were gathering flowers near the seashore. Charmed by the bull's good nature and fine appearance, Europa hung garlands of flowers over its horns and climbed onto its back. She was carried out to sea, to the island of Crete, where Jupiter resumed his normal shape and ravished her.
Claude came from Lorraine, but worked throught his career in Rome, where he was inspired by the ruined architecture of classical antiquity, the intense southern light and the beauty of the Roman countryside. He worked alongside his compatriot, Nicholas Poussin; together they forged a new, more intellectual type of landscape, which was a fitting setting for stories taken from classical mythology.
Five versions of this subject by Claude are known, the earliest was painted in 1634. Of these, the one in the Royal Collection is the last and the most sophisticated. The calm mood of the scene is established by the carefully placed trees, the fortification and ships on the horizon, and the pale golden light. The central group seem light-hearted and part of this Arcadian world. Yet the artist has depicted the natural world with great care: the breeze whipping up the water, the waves dashing against the ships, which are moving up and down on the sea, the rocky shore, the flowers on the horns of Jupiter, the grazing cattle and the magnificent trees framing the composition. Claude vividly contrasts the beauty of the setting with the latent violence of the subject and creates a real as well as poetic world.
Mme. de Bandeville's collection, Paris; sold 3 December 1787; Lord Gwydir's sale, Christie's, 9 May 1829 (81); where purchased by George IV for £2,100