Nymphs and Satyrs1638 - 1640. Oil on canvas, 139.7 x 167 cm.
The scene depicted in this painting relates to two stories told by the Roman poet Ovid. In Fasti (V, 121-24), he writes about a goat that suckled the infant Jupiter, who lost one of the lofty horns that curved over its back. The nymph Amalthea picked up the horn, and carried it to Jove, full of fruit. The invention of the cornucopia, or horn of plenty, is also told by Ovid in his long poem Metamorphoses (IX, 87-88), in which Hercules, in a contest for Deianeira, broke off one of the horns of the river god Achelous. The horn was found by a group of water nymphs, or Naiads, and they filled up that horn with fruits and fragrant flowers ... and made it a sacred thing. And now the gracious goddess Abundance uses this, the Cornucopia, as her motif. In this painting, the young and beautiful nymphs occupy the foreground, displaying their round, nude bodies in a variety of engaging poses. Associated with the abundance of nature, nymphs were linked to grottos and springs and worshipped there as divinities that brought fertility to the land. In the foreground, two of them hold the cornucopia, its rim overflowing with fruits and vegetables, symbols of the fecundity and abundance of the earth. Behind them, and mingling with the nymphs, are several satyrs, fantastical inhabitants of the wild who were associated with the unrestrained desire for sex and drink. The bulky figure that stands to the right, near the entrance to a cave, may be Pan, the shepherd god from Arcadia who was half-man and half-goat, and likewise associated with fertility. In ancient mythology, nymphs and satyrs often clash, as they embody the opposing forces of chastity and lust. In this image, however, they appear to coexist peacefully, as if embodying the merging of beauty and desire. Many of Peter Paul Rubens´s pictures, especially those from the last decade of his life, express the idea that fertility and abundance are inextricably linked to physical beauty and desire, as well as the notion that sexual desire is a force that harmonizes with nature. Abundance is expressed here as much by the fleshy, robust bodies of nymphs and satyrs as by the full cornucopia and the trees in the background, their branches laden with fruits, the trunks twisting with a promise of continued growth. Rubens was increasingly fascinated with the pastoral literature of Plato (428/427-348/347 BCE), Homer (flourished eighth or ninth century BCE?), Theocritus (c. 300-after 260 BCE), Virgil (70-19 BCE), and Horace (65-8 BCE) during his lifetime. This picture was likely inspired by classical texts such as Plato´s Phaedrus, one of the foundational works of the pastoral genre. In it, Plato idealizes country life and describes nature as the perfect setting for love. In a later passage of the poem (229-32), which describes Phaedrus´s and Socrates´s walk into a gentle landscape near a stream, Socrates (470/469-399 BCE) states that judging from the ornaments and images, this must be the spot sacred to Achelous and the Nymphs. Renaissance painters such as Giorgione and Titian created visual equivalents to similar literary passages, and provided the immediate precedent for Rubens´s pastoral landscapes and paintings of nymphs and satyrs. During the last decade of his career, Rubens devoted particular attention to Titian´s pictorial technique of unblended brushstrokes, his interpretation of the pastoral tradition, and his sensual representation of the nude. These characteristics are most evident in this work, which is particularly interesting because it shows how Rubens evolved in his painterly approach to the subject. Indeed, Rubens executed this painting over two campaigns, nearly twenty years apart. An X-ray taken at the Prado reveals the original composition beneath the existing one, an original that dates to approximately 1615. In that early image the landscape is much reduced, both on the sides and at the top of the painting. When Rubens enlarged the scene, he increased the area devoted to the trees, and also the landscape view that extends into the distance, adapting it to the poetic ideal he wished to express. He softened the forms of the nymphs with fluid brushwork and warm tones, and altered some of the nudity of the figures, such as that of the nymph seated to the far left, whose breasts, now exposed, were covered with a white cloth in the earlier scene. Nymphs and Satyrs is probably the picture identified as A Peice [sic] of Naked Nimphes and Satyrs in an inventory of Rubens´s collection made after his death in 1640, when the collection was put up for sale by his heirs. The painting was purchased by 1645 by Philip IV of Spain. The purchase from the artist´s estate of this painting, along with approximately eighteen others by Rubens, represents the culmination of three decades of intense patronage by the Spanish king, who gathered the largest group of paintings by the Flemish master ever assembled (aside from that by the painter himself). After its arrival in Madrid, the painting hung in the Alcazar Palace throughout the seventeenth century, and remained in the Spanish Royal Collections until entering the Real Museo de Pinturas (now the Museo Nacional del Prado) in 1827. Prior to that, in the eighteenth century, the painting was among those that were isolated from view because of excessive nudity, and kept in rooms in the Real Academia de San Fernando reserved for the purpose of artistic study (Text drawn from Vergara, A.: Splendor, Myth, and Vision. Nudes from the Prado, 2016, pp. 120-123).