The story of Niobe is related in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Canto 6, 146-312):
Niobe was the daughter of the proud King Tantalus of Phrygia. She married Amphion, the king of Thebes, and bore him seven sons and seven daughters. She bragged of her many children and chided the goddess Latona, mother of the twins Apollo and Diana, for having only two. In vengeance, Apollo and Diana carried out a massacre. They are shown in the clouds showering arrows down onto Niobe’s children.
Style of painting and the drama of the tale
Abraham Bloemaert’s style of painting suits the drama of the tale, full of contrasting shifts between colours, light, and shade as well as complicated poses with bodies viewed from extreme angles.
The great role model: Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem
Only 24 years old at the time, the painting sees Bloemaert closely approximating his great role model Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (1562-1638), who in the 1580s joined his friends Karel van Mander (1548-1606) and Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) to make his native town of Haarlem the centre of the special Haarlem Mannerist style.
In his famous Schilder Boeck from 1604 Karel van Mander relates how the painting was originally intended for Rudolph 2. (1552-1612) in Prague, a patron of many Mannerist artists.