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Nymphs and Satyrs
Rubens, Peter Paul
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Rubens, Peter Paul

Siegen, Westphalia (Germany), 1577 - Antwerp (Belgium), 1640

Rubens, Peter Paul See author's file

Nymphs and Satyrs

Ca. 1615. Oil on canvas.
Room 029

In this picture, the setting epitomises the classical concept of a Locus amoenus ("pleasant place)" which developed from the time of Homer and referred to an ideal place for sensual being, with flowing water that impregnates the land and shade provided by trees. Socrates describes such a place in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus. Rubens’s Locus amoenus is recreated with such conviction that it makes me think of a salient quality of his art: It is life enhancing, it brings us close to something akin to a Nietzschean "life forcé". Places of this type described in ancient texts and myths had a touch of otherworldliness and sexual tension, implicit in Plato’s passage in his mention of the nymphs. There are ten of these divinities in this painting. They take on the form of young and beautiful women. They were often referred to as lovely and described as partially naked, and were the object of desire of gods and men alike. Nymphs could live in rivers (if so, they were referred to as naiads), mountains, forests, or meadows, usually near springs and sacred caves. They embody the fertility of the world. This is made explicit in this painting in the pair that holds the Horn of Plenty, a symbol of abundance. Ovid explains in his Fasti and in Metamorphoses that nymphs found the horn and packed it with blossoms and fruits. In the latter book he explains: "The naiads filled up that horn with fruits and fragrant flowers; they made of it a sacred thing. And now Abundance – gracious goddess – uses this, the Cornucopia, as her motif". Rubens devoted several paintings to the subject (one of the most beautiful belongs to the Prado, Three Nymphs with the Horn of Plenty). Satyrs share the scene with the nymphs and offer them apples and grapes instead of pursuing them as they usually did. Their gazes and attitudes are sexualised. They lure the nymphs with the said fruits, but the young women seem confident (one, more threatened than others, holds back the arm of the satyr). This is different from some other paintings by Rubens where he shows them fighting back against the satyrs.

The large, unstable figure is Silenus, the fat and drunken follower of Dionysius, who had earlier been his educator. Like the nymphs, he is described in some texts as a cave dweller – here he stands unsteady next to the opening of a cave – and he often embodies abandon understood in a positive manner, as a wise response to life’s hardships. Below him, a tigress and her cubs are offered grapes by a baby satyr. Tigers are often present in paintings by Rubens showing satyrs, Silenus, and the nymphs (an example is the spectacular Drunken Silenus in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek). They were associated with Dionysus in many texts: Horace, in his Odes, writes that tigers carry the car of their god.

Rubens was thoroughly trained in classical culture, and like the intellectual elite of his time, learned to express his own feelings by quoting ancient authors. An example of this is a letter that he wrote to a friend following the death of his first wife. To convey his need to remove himself from his daily surroundings because of the sadness they produced, he quoted a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid that describes Dido’s state after the departure of Aeneas: "Alone she mourns in the empty hall, and falls on the couch he has left". Similarly, we can see this painting as the expression of an idea learned from classical literature and integrated into Rubens’s understanding of life and the world to such an extent that it becomes personal.

If you look closely at the painting, you can see the traces of an earlier underlying composition (this is especially visible in the hand that has been overpainted next to the knee of one of the nymphs at left who looks at us). The first version was made by Rubens about 1615, and then thoroughly overpainted and also enlarged over twenty years later (there are copies of the underlying image that show what it used to look like, as does an X-ray that was taken at the Prado). Making changes to earlier works and enlarging them was not exceptional for Rubens; it is a sign of his impressive creative energy. When he repainted this scene, he increased the importance of the surrounding landscape, bringing it closer to the poetic vision that we find in many of Titian’s mythologies (the Worship of Venus and the Bacchanal of the Andrians).

The figure of Silenus and the area surrounding him are built with very dense and opaque paint, applied in a way reminiscent of how Vasari described the late style of Titian: "with bold strokes and dashed off with a broad and even coarse sweep of the brush" (Vergara, Alejandro, in Mythological Passions, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2021, pp. 114-116).


Technical data

Inventory number
Rubens, Peter Paul
Nymphs and Satyrs
Ca. 1615; 1638 - 1640
Height: 139.7 cm; Width: 167 cm
Royal Collection (Real Alcázar, Madrid, Pieza Larga, 1666, s.n.; Real Alcázar, Pieza larga de las bóbedas, 1686, s.n.; Real Alcázar, Pieza larga de las bobedas, 1701-1703, nº371; [¿]Real Alcázar, Pinturas que se hallaron en las bobedas de Palacio, 1734, nº684[?]; Palacio del Buen Retiro, Madrid, Pinturas entregadas en dhas. Casas Arzobispales, 1747, nº199; Palacio Nuevo, Madrid, Estudio de don Andrés de la Calleja pintor de su Magd., 1772, nº199; Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Pinturas que posee la Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, 1796-1805, nº85; Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Sala reservada, 1827, nº85; Museo Real de Pinturas a la muerte de Fernando VII, Madrid, Sala Reservada, 1834, nº53)

Bibliography +

Sánchez Cantón, Francisco Javier y Beroqui, Pedro, Inventarios Reales en 12 Volumenes y Un Indice (Fotocopias) (procedencia/provenanace), 1923.

Bottineau, Yves, L'Alcázar de Madrid et l'inventaire de 1686. Aspects de la cour d'Espagne au XVIIe siècle, Bulletin Hispanique, 1958.

Fernández Bayton, Gloria, Inventarios reales: testamentaria del Rey Carlos II : 1701-1703 (procedencia/provenance), Museo del Prado. Patronato Nacional de Museos,, Madrid, 1975.

Díaz Padrón, Matías, Museo del Prado: catálogo de pintura: escuela flamenca, Museo del Prado. Patrimonio Nacional de Museos, Madrid, 1975, pp. 268-269.

Díaz Padrón, Matías, El siglo de Rubens en el Museo del Prado : catálogo razonado, Prensa Iberica, Barcelona, 1995, pp. 960.

Alpers, Svetlana, The Making of Rubens, Yale University Press, Yale, 1995, pp. 5-64.

Anes, Gonzalo, Las colecciones reales y la fundación del Museo del Prado, Amigos del Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1996, pp. 202.

Vergara, Alejandro, Rubens and his spanish patrons, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 149.

Vergara, Alejandro, The Presence of Rubens in Spain. (Volumes i and II). Tesis D, A Bell & Howell Company, Ann Arbor, 1999, pp. 112-117.

Portús Pérez, Javier, La sala reservada y el desnudo en el Museo del Prado, Museo Nacional del Prado, Turner, Madrid, 2002, pp. 114.

Aterido Fernández, A.; Martínez Cuesta, J.; Pérez Preciado, J. J., Colecciones de pinturas de Felipe V e Isabel Farnesio: inventarios reales, Fundación de Apoyo de la Historia del Arte Hispánico, Madrid, 2004.

Clippe, Karolien, Rubens nymphs and satyr's in the Prado. Observations on its genesis and meaning., The Burlington magazine, 149, 2007, pp. 76.

Nude and the norm in the early modern low countries, Brepols, 2011, pp. 201-220.

Greub, Thierry, Der Platz des Bildes und der 'Platz des Königs', Diego Velázquez 'Las Meninas' im Sommer-Arbeitszimmer Philipps IV, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Heft 3-4, 2015, pp. 441-487 [468 f.21].

Martínez Leiva, Gloria; Rodríguez Rebollo, Ángel, El inventario del Alcázar de Madrid de 1666. Felipe IV y su colección artística, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, 2015, pp. 330 nº 281.

Vergara, A, 'La idea de la belleza en Rubens' En: Historia de la belleza, de Fidias a Picasso, Círculo de Lectores - Fundación Amigos Museo del Prado, Madrid, 2015, pp. 133-148 [139-140].

Portús Pérez, Javier, Displaying the Nude in Spain 1550-1834. The Sala Reservada, en: Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado, Clark Art Institute; Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016, pp. 50-66 [61].

Vergara, A, 'L'idealismo di Rubens: visioni dell' assoluto' En:, Rubens e la nascita del Barocco, Marsilio Editori,, 2016, pp. 40-55 [49 f.5].

Vergara, A, 'Peter Paul Rubens. Nymphs and Satyrs'' En:, Splendor, Myth, and Vision : Nudes from the Prado, Clark Art Institute ; Museo Nacional del Prado,, 2016, pp. 120-123 n.13.

Vergara, Alejandro, 'Comentario ', En: Pasiones mitológicas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2021, pp. 114-116 nº 11.

Other inventories +

Inv. Alcázar, Madrid, 1734. Núm. [¿]684[?].
[¿]Pinturas que se hallaron en las Bóbedas de Palacio [...] 684 / Otro lienzo sin marco ni vastidor de vara y tres quartas de ancho y vara y quarta de alto de vna fabula de mimphas de mano no conocida[?]

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1873-1907. Núm. 1587.
1587.-(1686-N.)-Ninfas y sátiros solazándose en una floresta junto á un arroyo y cogiendo fruta de los árboles. / Col. de Cárlos II, R.Alc. y Pal. de Madrid.-F.L. / Alto 1,36; ancho 1,65.-L.

Inv. Real Museo, 1857. Núm. 1686.
Rubens / 1686. Ninfas y satiros. / Están entretenidos en coger fruta de los arboles. Dos de ellas, en primer termino, sostienen el / cuerno de Amaltea, que llenan las demás con la fruta que recogen. / Alto 4 pies, 10 pulg, 6 lin; ancho 5 pies, 11 pulg.

Inv. Felipe V, Buen Retiro, 1747. Núm. 199.
Pinturas enttregadas en dhas. Casas Arzobispales a Dn. Santiago de Bonabia [...] 199 / Vn lienzo de dos Varas escasas de altto y Vara y dos tterzias de ancho d ela familia del Dios Baco original del Rubenes en nueue mil rs.

Inv. Carlos III, Palacio Nuevo, 1772. Núm. 199.
Estudio de don Andrés de la Calleja Pintor de Cámara de su magd. [...] 199 / Otro quadro de Baco en festejo con diferentes nimphas y satiros de dos varas escasas de caida y vra y dos tercias de ancho original de Rubenes

Inv. Testamentaría Carlos II, Alcázar de Madrid, 1701-1703. Núm. 371.
Pieza larga de las bobedas [...] 371 / Yttem Vna pinttura de Siette quarttas de altto y Seis de ancho de Vnas Ninfas con Vnos Sattiros de mano de Rubenes con marco negro tasada en Zientto y Cinquentta doblones......150

Inv. Testamentaría Fernando VII, Real Museo, Sala Reservada, 1834. Núm. 53.
Sala Reservada [...] Cincuenta y tres Ninfas y satiros están en diferentes grupos Rubens. Flamenca Lº 40.240

Academia, Sala Reservada, 1827. Núm. 85.
Un pais frondoso con Satiros y Ninfas. / [Autor] Rubens / [Alto] 4 [pies] 10 [pulgs.] / [Ancho] 6 [pies]

Pinturas que posee la Real Academia de San Fernando. Núm. 85.
Noticia de las pinturas que posee la Real Academia de San Fernando según el orden de su numeración [1796-1805] [...] 85 / Varias Ninfas y Satiros de Rubens. Donativo del Rey N.S. 2 v. ancho y mas de v 1/2 de alto marco dorado con filetes.

Inv. Felipe IV, Alcázar de Madrid, 1666. Núm. s.n..
PIEÇA LARGA [...] {281} Otra pintura, de siete quartas de alto y seis de ancho, de unas ninfas con unos sátiros, de mano de Rubenes, en dozientos ducados… 2.200.

Inv. Felipe IV, Alcázar de Madrid, 1686. Núm. s.n..
Pieza larga de las bóvedas [...] (686) Otra Pintura de siete quartas de alto y seis de ancho de vnas Nimfas, con vnos sátiros de mano de Rubenes.

Inscriptions +

Inscribed in white. Front, lower left corner

Exhibitions +

Mythological Passions: Tiziano, Veronese, Allori, Rubens, Ribera, Poussin, Van Dyck, Velázquez
02.03.2021 - 04.07.2021

06.06.2020 - 25.07.2021

Splendor, Myth and Vision: Nudes from the Prado
Williamstown MA
12.06.2016 - 10.10.2016

05.11.2010 - 23.01.2011

From Titian to Goya. Great Masters from the Museo del Prado
13.09.2007 - 12.11.2007

From Titian to Goya. Great Masters from the Museo del Prado
29.06.2007 - 24.08.2007

De Tiziano a Goya. Obras maestras del Museo del Prado
14.07.2006 - 15.10.2006

De Tiziano a Goya. Obras maestras del Museo del Prado
24.03.2006 - 02.07.2006

Location +

Room 029 (On Display)


Displayed objects +

Horn of Plenty / Coruncopia

Update date: 03-02-2022 | Registry created on 28-04-2015

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