Bacchic Scene1626 - 1628. Oil on canvas, 74 x 60 cm.
In a lush, wooded landscape on the banks of a quiet river, a nude woman, sitting on a richly colored red cloak, gestures to two male figures posed beside her. Supporting a glazed jug in her lap, she points to the standing nude boy, who pours wine from a golden ewer into the mouth of a kneeling satyr. Wearing a grapevine belt and a crown, the satyr, a half-man, half-goat creature associated with unbridled lust and wine, braces himself to accept the drink. An unused drinking cup rests alongside the woman, as does a small crook, possibly identifying her as a herder. With her direct gaze and gesture, the woman commands the viewer´s attention and guides us to the main narrative action. The Prado´s 1834 inventory calls the picture A female cowherd and a satyr, given a drink by a Cupid. Yet the youth has no wings (a typical attribute of Cupid), and a leopard skin -a prime attribute of Bacchus- hangs from a broken tree limb just above the boy. If this scene is about the infant god of wine, the female figure may be one of the nymphs of Nysa, who were entrusted with the care of the infant Bacchus. In this way, the composition could be considered Nicolas Poussin´s original rendering of the story of the discovery of wine, and as such would join a group of his paintings that take the infancy, education, and nurture of Bacchus as their subject. One of three nearly identical versions, this painting was likely executed by Poussin between 1626 and 1628 -a period of intense work in Rome, when the artist focused on subjects from antique poetry and mythology such as Ovid´s Metamorphoses and Philostratus´s (c. 170-c. 247 CE) Imagines. Among the many small paintings on these themes from the late 1620s, a number depict three or four nude or seminude figures -nymphs, satyrs, and Olympians- situated in a pastoral landscape. Poussin´s interest in this subject matter developed from his engagement with Rome´s elite intellectual circles, including the Italian court poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625), who first invited Poussin to Rome in 1624, and the antiquarian and patron Cassiano dal Pozzo, who served as secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini. During this period, Poussin also embarked on a close study of Titian´s Bacchanals in the Roman collections of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1632). He borrowed a number of visual motifs from the Venetian painter, inspired to pursue the classical challenge of ut pictura poesis (as is painting, so is poetry), as well as explore more broadly a range of bacchic themes and the depiction of nudes in the landscape. But while Poussin demonstrated a keen interest in Titian´s warmly colored, sensual subjects, his handling of the composition and the figures is far more restrained. For instance, in the present painting, the nymph´s solid body, rendered in a contrast of cool and red tones and controlled brushstrokes, adheres to an idealized, classical model. These qualities complement the calm, organized structure of the group in the landscape. The fact that Poussin returned to this subject -with slight variations- on several occasions attests not only to his own evolving approach, but also to the popularity of these themes within learned circles. This painting´s ownership history is unknown until the 1720s, but it is traditionally thought to have been owned previously by the painter Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), a near contemporary of Poussin in Rome. Around 1724, it was acquired by Philip V, grandson of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) and the first Bourbon king of Spain, as part of a group of 124 Italian and French seventeenth-century paintings for his new palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso in Segovia, then under construction. Philip engaged the painter Andrea Procaccini (1671-1734), a disciple of Maratta, to assemble this collection of choice pictures, which remained largely intact at La Granja after Philip´s death. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, they were divided between two Madrid institutions: the Real Academia de San Fernando and the newly founded Museo Nacional del Prado. This painting was placed in the sala reservada likely because of the female nudity, along with the notions of alcohol-fueled revelry it must have aroused (Text drawn from Loughman, T. J.: Splendor, Myth, and Vision. Nudes from the Prado, 2016, pp. 138-141).