Paolo Veronese: The Choice Between Virtue and Vice - c.1580
New York, Frick Collection
Veronese, a painter famed for his color, illusionism and pageantry, can exert a surprisingly profound influence. Art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) wrote of a Sunday in 1858 when his ‘evangelical beliefs were put away’ after seeing a particularly luscious Veronese in Turin; from that moment he realized that ‘to be a first-rate painter, you mustn’t be pious – but rather a little wicked and entirely a man of the world.’
This is an apt appraisal of Veronese, one of the most important painters of 16th-century Venice, whose paintings revolve around beauty and the pleasures of the flesh, even when depicting moralizing tales. His luminous color is designed to delight and his fabrics are so sensuous, clothing can seem as alluring as nudity. Yet his work is underlined with a subtle intelligence and rigor, which lifts it high above mere decorativeness.
His pictures often depict the worldly, festival atmosphere of 16th-century Venice, including this one. At first glance the colorful costumes and flurry of action suggest a light-hearted scene but it quickly becomes evident that something is not right. Is the man’s leg bloody? Is that fear in his eyes? Does the beautiful blonde in blue and orange have claws?
Yes to all, as this is an allegory of Virtue and Vice, most probably a variant on the Choice of Hercules, a popular theme in Renaissance art. In it, the young Hercules finds himself at a crossroads where he must decide between a life of ease and pleasure (Vice) or a challenging lifelong ascent that will eventually lead to true happiness (Virtue). In typical Veronese fashion, the characters are not in classical dress but rather in 16th-century Venetian costumes. Dressed in gold-trimmed white satin, Hercules is a contemporary gentleman (some have even suggested that it is a self-portrait of Veronese) and he must choose between two young women.
One is modestly dressed in a green gown and her serious face is crowned with a laurel wreath. The other woman, though her back is to the viewer, is clearly the more beautiful of the two, with golden hair, lilywhite shoulders and a sumptuous dress. She holds a pack of playing cards, an indicator of the variability of fortune as well as a reference to a life of idleness and play. She leans on a marble Sphinx – an emblem of lust in the Renaissance – with a knife against its chest; both allude to death. If it wasn’t already obvious that she is Vice, then her pointed claws, which Veronese highlights with a daub of white and red, give it away. Hercules, already bleeding from tarrying too long with Vice, wisely turns to the protective arms of Virtue.
The motto Honor et virtus post mortem floret (Honor and virtue flourish after death) written on a classical statue in the background, reinforces the moral. Yet the image, like most Veroneses, appeals to the senses with its opulent bravura and lush hues, suggesting that though he may run to Virtue now, the young man, like Ruskin, may have a change of heart.
This picture was one of five Veroneses in the collection of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. A theory suggests the paintings were commissioned for Rudolf’s coronation in 1576, but this is uncertain. After a colorful history – including being stolen by invading Swedish troops in 1648 – this painting (along with the Allegory of Wisdom and Strength) entered the Frick collection in 1912.
1575–80 Jacopo Tintoretto: Christ at the Sea of Galilee, Washington, National Gallery of Art
1577 El Greco: The Assumption of the Virgin, Chicago, Art Institute
1581 Nicholas Hilliard: Sir Frances Drake, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum