This playful scene celebrates Silenus, Greek god of wine and drunkenness, and companion to the god Bacchus. Silenus, a fat naked old man with a bald head, sits slumped on a throne to the left, supported by two men. Too drunk to stand, he balances one leg precariously on a tiger. The partygoers remove their clothing and enjoy the festivities. The flute player stares towards us, inviting us to join the party. To the right, a shepherd seduces a female satyr, who symbolises lust. Behind them, two centaurs with human bodies and horses' legs attack an ass.
This is a copy of an original work by Poussin and was likely made by an assistant. The composition is complex and sophisticated with trees and rocky cliffs framing the scene. The figures are coarsely painted but the foreground objects are meticulously detailed.
This playful scene celebrates Silenus, Greek god of wine and drunkenness, and companion to the god Bacchus. Silenus, a fat naked old man with a bald head, sits slumped on a throne to the left, supported by two men. He rests his hand on a jug of wine. Too drunk to stand, he balances one leg precariously on a tiger, although he is often shown in paintings riding an ass. The garland at Silenus‘ feet and the wreath being lowered onto his head are mentioned in Virgil’s Eclogues, a series of poems on pastoral themes (book VI, 1:16). They were worn during Roman festivals and banquets devoted to Bacchus.
The partygoers remove their clothes and enjoy the festivities as they drink and dance. The flute player in the centre stares towards us, inviting us to join the party. On the right, a shepherd seduces a female satyr, who symbolises lust. In the background, two centaurs with human bodies and horses’ legs attack an ass. The idealised and muscular physique of the men reveals Poussin’s study of statues from classical antiquity. The composition is complex and sophisticated with trees and rocky cliffs to frame the scene. The faded colouring of the draperies hanging in the trees was once vibrant.
This picture is a copy of an original work by Poussin and may have been painted by an assistant. Although it generally imitates Poussin’s style there are some differences – especially in the depiction of nude figures. There are also inconsistencies within the picture: the figures are painted rather coarsely but the foreground objects are meticulously detailed.
The people and setting are similar to Titian’s Andrians (Prado, Madrid) which Poussin may have seen in Rome. The frieze-like composition, with the people and trees evenly placed across the painting, is inspired by images on ancient Roman stone coffins, known as sarcophagi.
Around 1636 Poussin painted three bacchanalian scenes for the home of the powerful French minister, Cardinal de Richelieu (1585–1642): a scene depicting Silenus, The Triumph of Pan and Triumph of Bacchus (Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City). A set of painted copies were commissioned (now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours) to replace the original versions which were sold during the eighteenth century. Paul Fréart de Chantelou (1609–1694), a French collector and one of Poussin’s leading patrons, also owned copies of the original paintings.
The National Gallery’s painting could be the copy owned by Richelieu or Chantelou. Alternatively, it may have been painted for a less prestigious patron who was not worried about the quality of the picture and then gave it to Richelieu. This would explain why the Silenus painting did not hang next to the two original works in Richelieu’s chateau as it was not part of this group.
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