In this seemingly idyllic scene, Samuel van Hoogstraten renders a moment leading up to one of the most surprising stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (4.308–88), in which a young man is sexually assaulted by a female nymph.1 Salmacis, one of Diana’s vain water nymphs, fell in love with Hermaphroditus, the youthful and beautiful son of the gods Hermes and Aphrodite, when she noticed him traveling through her territory in Asia Minor. After a futile attempt to seduce her introverted heartthrob, she pretended to leave, only to spy on him from behind a tree. Hermaphroditus, unaware of Salmacis’s presence and still dumbfounded by the nymph’s unabashed flirtation, took off his clothes and bathed in a stream. Unable to control her lust at seeing Hermaphroditus’s perfect, naked body, Salmacis jumped into the water and forced herself onto the struggling youth. Before Hermaphroditus could break free, Salmacis asked the gods to unite them forever. Her plea was heard, and the two bodies were molded into a single androgynous being.
The story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus was a less common subject than were other stories from Metamorphoses, such as Apollo and Daphne or Perseus and Andromeda. Nevertheless, Van Hoogstraten was undoubtedly familiar with several depictions of this scene by Jan Gossaert (1478–1532), Bartholomeus Spranger (1546–1611) and Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617). Unlike these earlier compositions, in which the nude figures of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus are equally visible and often entwined, Van Hoogstraten’s depiction focuses instead on the young Hermaphroditus during his last moments as a separate being, blissfully unaware of the imminent peril awaiting him.2
Hermaphroditus, seated on the mossy shore of a gently rippling stream, dips the toes of his outstretched right leg into the water. His proper left hand leans on the ground, while his right hand holds up his white undergarment, revealing his smooth, beautifully formed limbs. His downcast eyes and slight smile emphasize his youthful vulnerability. Suspended from the tree branch above his head are his discarded clothes: a red velvet hat adorned with red and white feathers and a bright yellow, heavy satin robe. Salmacis stands behind the tree branch, her body almost entirely concealed behind Hermaphroditus’s yellow mantle. Crowned by a garland of flowers, she peers over the branch, with eyes fixated on the youth.
Van Hoogstraten used several means to focus the viewer’s attention on Hermaphroditus. In addition to depicting him in a conspicuous white garment, Van Hoogstraten framed his head with the leaves of the bush behind him and placed the red hat directly above him. Lastly, he painted a pale yellow area to the left of Hermaphroditus’s robe to set him apart from the dark tree behind him, a visual ploy to allude to the figure’s isolation. That this yellow color was Van Hoogstraten’s conscious design element is evident by the yellow brushstroke visible along the contour of the boy’s right elbow (fig 1).
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus is the only extant painting by Van Hoogstraten with a narrative derived from classical antiquity.3 Although the artist is known primarily for his trompe l’oeil paintings, portraits and biblical scenes, archival sources reveal that Van Hoogstraten, who had an excellent command of Latin and often alluded to antiquity in his writings, did execute other classical scenes as well.4 Salmacis and Hermaphroditus was deemed lost until it emerged from obscurity in 2003.5 It is most likely the “Salmasis en Hermaphroditus door [Hoogstraten]” painting listed in a 1721 archival document as having belonged to the prominent Dordrecht physician Johan de Jongh, who died in 1676.6 De Jongh lived on the Marktveld, very close to the Steegoversloot where Van Hoogstraten had purchased a house in 1671 after his return from The Hague.7 De Jongh owned four other works by Van Hoogstraten, which were probably executed in or around 1671.8 It is therefore likely that Van Hoogstraten also painted Salmacis and Hermaphroditus after moving back to his native Dordrecht.
A dating of around 1671–76 fits within Van Hoogstraten’s oeuvre. The smooth finish and palette of evenly distributed reds, greens and blues in Salmacis and Hermaphroditus are comparable to the finish and coloring of three other late works by the artist, the 1670 Triumph of Truth and Justice in Sweden (fig 2), the Chicago Resurrection of Christ dated to ca. 1670 (fig 3), and the New York Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin dated to ca. 1670 (fig 4).9 More specifically, the foliage and the facial features of Justice in the painting in Sweden are similar to the foliage and features of Salmacis. Furthermore, the execution of the angel’s yellow robe in the Chicago Resurrection, with the distinct light-yellow highlights on the edges of the folds, corresponds closely to Hermaphroditus’s yellow garment.
Around the same time that Van Hoogstraten executed Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, he was also working on his famous handbook for young painters, Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst, which he completed just before his death in 1678.10 Although his first biographer and former student Arnold Houbraken observed that in his late history paintings Van Hoogstraten would sometimes paint in ways he himself condemned in his handbook, in Salmacis and Hermaphroditus the artist generally followed his own instructions.11 With regard to landscapes, Van Hoogstraten advised young artists to render carefully foreground vegetation and to execute background elements with much looser brushwork. He also recommended that painters include a winding road receding into the background and adorn clear pools of water with rocks.12 Adherence to these three instructions can be observed in Salmacis and Hermaphroditus.
Despite these recommendations to record nature accurately, including knowing which types of trees grow in mountainous or swampy settings, Van Hoogstraten firmly believed that artists should carefully select which landscape elements to render.13 Nature should be depicted in a beautiful and idyllic way, where one might imagine nymphs and satyrs roaming the countryside. This classicizing impulse is fully evident in the generalized landscape Van Hoogstraten painted for Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. Trees, fields and distant hills, as well as the quiet waters of the stream, have an idealized character appropriate for the mythological story being depicted. This restrained, arcadian setting accords well with the demeanor of the two protagonists, as Hermaphroditus tests the still waters with his bare foot, unaware that Salmacis hides behind a tree, entranced by his beautiful body.