This painting illustrates a story from Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' (I, 793-820). The nymph Syrinx was pursued by the amorous Pan as far as the river Ladon, where she begged her sisters of the river, one of whom is shown reclining on an urn, to help her. Thinking that he had caught Syrinx, Pan clasped at her, but the river nymphs changed Syrinx into the reeds growing on the river bank, from which he later made his pipes. He rushes towards Syrinx in Boucher's painting, urged on by the boy Cupid holding an arrow and a burning torch.
In its scale and intimate character, the painting is very like the work of Jean-Antoine Watteau although the theme is directly mythological and the treatment more overtly erotic. Imbued with drama, it is also more distinctly reminiscent of Rubens in style.
Two drawings by Boucher connected with this composition are known, both executed in red, black and white chalks (private collection; Bloomington, Indiana, University Art Museum).
Louise Govier: This is a little painting, an intimate painting, meant to draw you in, by Francois Boucher, done in 1759 and it shows Pan and Syrinx, and Syrinx is this beautiful girl who is being chased by Pan, who as we know is a naughty woodland god, who is very lusty, and has absolutely got her in his sights. As she’s running away from him she reaches a river and persuades her sisters, the river nymphs, to change her into some reeds. And what we actually see in the painting is sort of both moments shown at the same time. We’ve got Syrinx running away into the arms of one of the women that’s saving her and at the same time Pan is grasping for her, but only getting an armful of reeds, so she’s safe from him.
Now what’s interesting about this painting, I think, is that if you want to, you can see it in a number of different ways in terms of its eroticism. Traditionally, it’s assumed that Boucher is painting for male viewers and that these luscious female bodies are on show for male viewers to enjoy, but increasingly we find that there are female viewers, sometimes lesbian viewers, who in particular have looked at paintings like this and written about them in quite different terms and see these instead as women who are sharing each others’ bodies, who are actually, of course in this case… the girl is keeping her body for another woman, she’s actually turning away from the man. And you can look at Boucher’s paintings in some senses as almost utopian spaces where all these nudes just talk to each other, touch each other, and actually the men are really kind of irrelevant. So it’s one of those pictures that can be read in a completely different way if that’s your own viewpoint.
Miranda Hinkley: Louise, how many of these hidden stories do you think there are in the Gallery?
Louise Govier: Oh, I think there are hundreds, because of course for every painting you’re going to have a whole range of meanings that that painting might produce for different people. If you asked 10 different people what they think of the same painting, you’re probably going to get 10 different stories, and of course, sexuality is something that’s going to feed into that. So different people with different experiences are going to read different things from the same painting, so I think there are probably loads of different pictures in the Gallery where this could be the case.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty One, July 2008