My Favourite Painting: Xavier F. Salomon

Xavier Salomon of The Frick Collection chooses Allegory of Virtue and Vice by Paolo Veronese.

Xavier Solomon on The Choice Between Virtue and Vice by Paolo Veronese

‘This is the painting that, many years ago, made me fall in love with Veronese. It is a piece of pure theatre, an image that plays in clever ways with the viewer. It is a painting about the young handsome man in white (who is he?) and his choice.

‘But it is also an astute composition where the man and the viewer compete in terms of what they understand of the two flanking allegorical figures.

‘As always with Veronese, the magnificence of the scene goes hand in hand with his pictorial intelligence and his unrivalled sagacity in staging a narrative.’

Xavier F. Salomon is the deputy director and Peter Jay Sharp chief curator of The Frick Collection in New York

John McEwen on The Choice Between Virtue and Vice

Hercules was the son of the supreme god Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene, whom Zeus seduced by appearing in the form of her no less mortal husband. Thus, Hercules was born a demi-god, famed for his immense strength. Contemplating his future in youth, he was confronted with two women personifying Vice and Virtue. Vice offered him a pleasant and self-indulgent life of no consequence; Virtue hard-earned glory.

The Renaissance interest in Ancient Greece and Rome introduced a humanist accent on questioning intelligence rather than unquestioning faith. The human fallibility of the powerful Hercules made him a popular artistic subject and his moral choice had resonance in 16th-century Venice.

In Veronese’s take on the tale, the moral lesson is written in capitals on the entablature: HONOR ET VIRTUS POST MORTE FLORET (Honour and Virtue Flourish after Death). The figure in the centre is fleeing the jewel-bedecked figure of Vice, whose dress undone and whose hair is woven with cyclamen, used in love potions. She holds a pack of playing cards in her left hand and sits on a sphinx, against which rests a knife.

Modest Virtue, crowned with victor’s laurels, drags the man from the clutches of Vice, whose sharp nails have ripped the hose of his leg. The moral message is clear: choose a virtuous path and you shall be rewarded.

The man has been identified as Veronese himself, a Venetian everyman or, most likely, the patron of the painting. Clearly choosing Virtue, he bears none of the attributes of Hercules and his clothes are contemporary, in contrast with the timeless garments of the two women. The white of his outfit, impractical and sometimes associated with mourning, implies he may have died young.