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The Daughters of Cecrops Find the Infant Erichthonius
Called “the Dutch Raphael” by his contemporaries in Amsterdam, Gérard de Lairesse arrived in that commercial center in 1665 or 1666. Lairesse’s reliance on subjects from classical literature and on formal and decorative inspirations from Greco-Roman art and architecture placed him in direct opposition to the prevalent realistic landscape, biblical, and genre scenes produced by the city’s established artists.
The subject of this painting is one of the obscure, brief stories found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The half-human, half-serpent creature in the basket is Erichthonius. His accidental, chthonic birth occurred when the Greek god Hephaestus’s semen fell to earth during his attempted rape of Athena. The goddess charged the three daughters of Athens’s King Cecrops (Herse, Aglauros, and Pandrosos) with Erichthonius’s safekeeping, with the caveat that they must not open the lid of the basket. Lairesse’s painting illustrates their horror at the moment of their disobedience. There are various accounts of the tragic result of their action. The prevailing one in Renaissance translations tells that all three daughters became mad from the frightful shock and committed suicide.
from Snite Museum of Art, Selected Works: Snite Museum of Art (Notre Dame, 2005)