This small and intimate painting is a cabinet picture intended for private domestic display rather than public exhibition. It illustrates a story from Metamorphoses, the epic poem by the Roman poet Ovid. The wood nymph Syrinx is chased by the god Pan to the river Ladon, where she begs one of the river nymphs to disguise her by changing her shape. The river nymph, with her back towards us, obliges by transforming Syrinx into reeds.
Boucher uses fluid brushstrokes to create a surface that has an almost jewel-like brilliance. The blues and greens complement the fleshy pinks of the women, who seem to glow against their dark surroundings. The painting’s mix of hedonism, overt eroticism and ambiguous sexuality may have particularly appealed to the libertine tastes of the royal court before the arrival of a more moralising tone in both art and art criticism in the 1760s.
This small and intimate painting is a cabinet picture intended for private domestic display rather than public exhibition. It illustrates a story taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The wood nymph Syrinx is chased by the god Pan to the river Ladon, where she begs one of the river nymphs to disguise her by changing her shape. The river nymph, reclining on an urn with her back towards us, obliges by transforming Syrinx into reeds. According to the poem, Pan ‘thought he had caught Syrinx, instead of her held naught but marsh reeds in his arms.’
This story had previously been illustrated by many artists – you might want to compare Boucher’s painting with Hendrick van Balen the Elder’s version of the story, Pan pursuing Syrinx. However, Boucher takes some liberties with the poem. He does not follow the convention of including the river god Ladon, but instead represents the river with a nymph, enabling him to paint not one but two female nudes. And although Ovid’s story is one of sexual pursuit, there is little sense here of a frightened Syrinx actively trying to flee. Not only does she remain visible, even as Pan clutches an armful of reeds, but as she looks back over her shoulder at him her wide-eyed expression is as much coy as it is fearful.
Boucher may have been loose with his textual sources and with pictorial traditions, but his depiction of the story allowed him to reuse motifs and display his skilful technique. The reclining nude seen from the back was a figure he had often used, but several surviving chalk drawings, made from a model, also reveal his careful preparation for the painting, particularly the women’s poses. Boucher makes dramatic use of contrasts – for example, Pan’s dark skin and taut muscles contrast with the pale luminous tones and soft curves of the women’s bodies, which recall nudes by Rubens. As he lunges forward, Pan threatens to break into the protective oval cocoon formed by the sinuous outlines of the women, who become almost one body seen from both the front and from behind. This proximity, even merging, of the two nymphs suggests the possibility of a quite different sexual narrative. Not only does Syrinx seem as interested in her female companion as she is in Pan’s attention but he, like us, seems to intrude upon a private liaison between the two women.
The upward zigzag of the two cupids – one of whom holds the symbols of passion (an arrow and a flame) – further energises the composition. Boucher uses fluid brushstrokes to create a paint surface that in places has an almost jewel-like brilliance – look, for example, at the touches of bright white and blue in the draperies in the lower right corner. These colours, together with the greens of the reeds, complement the fleshy pinks of the women who seem to glow against their dark surroundings.
Pan and Syrinx was first owned by Armand-Pierre-François de Chastre de Billy, who was the king’s principal valet. The painting’s mix of sensual hedonism, overt eroticism and ambiguous sexuality may have particularly appealed to the libertine tastes of the royal court before the arrival of a more moralising tone in both art and art criticism in the 1760s.
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