5 minutes with... Rubens’ A Satyr Holding a Basket of Grapes and Quinces with a Nymph

From the dirt beneath its fingernails to its wine-flushed cheeks, the vivid details of this half-man half-goat — offered in New York on 19 April — are quintessential Rubens, says specialist John Hawley. The grapes, on the other hand, are a different story…

‘One of Rubens’ great triumphs is his ability to take a classical subject and bring it down to a human level,’ explains John Hawley, Christie’s Old Masters specialist, pointing to the dirt under the fingernails of the satyr, a half-man, half-goat, in this painting from circa 1620. ‘It's as if the satyr himself has picked these grapes or harvested these quinces,’ adds the specialist. ‘And it's these naturalistic details that really excite those of us in the field.’

Satyrs were a favourite subject for the Flemish baroque painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). The pleasure-seeking creature was a follower of Bacchus (the Greek god of wine, also known as Dionysus), a fact the artist illustrates here with pinkish cheeks that suggest he has been imbibing alcohol. 

A year before he started this work, Rubens finished painting a picture of a pair of satyrs, which now hangs in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. The faces of the full-frontal satyrs in each work, with lowered heads, mischievous eyes and curled smiles, closely resemble one another. It has been suggested that they were modelled on the face of a satyr from a 4th-century carved agate Byzantine vase, which Rubens had acquired in 1619.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577-1640 Antwerp), A Satyr Holding a Basket of Grapes and Quinces with a Nymph. 41¼ x 29⅞ in (104.8 x 75.8 cm).

‘You can’t avoid eye contact with [this] satyr,’ remarks Hawley, who explains how his bountiful cornucopia of apples, grapes and quinces represent the joys of wine, food, fertility and life. Typically for Rubens, though, there is no sense that he is issuing a warning about the dangers of over-indulgence, as is common with other paintings on the same subject.

Rubens’ satyr, who is only held back from the onlooker by the accompanying nymph’s vine tendril, is made to appear all the more diabolical through the artist’s use of chiaroscuro, a technique of painting deep, dark shadows inspired by the works of Caravaggio, which he had studied while in Italy in 1615.

By the time Rubens painted this work in his studio in Antwerp five years later, he was at the peak of his creative power and fame — the greatest figure painter of his age. To complete the work, however, some experts believe that Rubens enlisted his frequent collaborator and neighbour Frans Snyders (1579-1657) — the greatest still-life painter in Antwerp in the 17th century — to paint the fruit in the basket.

‘When you look closely you can see several changes… it’s really an opportunity to see an artist’s mind at work’

‘When you look closely you can see that [Snyders] has made several changes to it, the most noticeable of which is that he has removed one of these apples or quinces,’ says Hawley, pointing to a faint outline of a rounded fruit which has been painted over with grapes. ‘It’s really an opportunity to see the artist’s mind at work.’

Historically, such collaborative efforts were both commonplace and prized by collectors — in 1618, for example, Sir Dudley Carleton, the British Ambassador to the Netherlands, specifically selected works executed jointly by Rubens and Snyders.

After Rubens died in 1640, Snyders was one of three people to draw up a catalogue of his estate, which lists under item 174, Une pièce d’une Nymphe et Satyre avec un panier, plein de raisins, sur fond de bois (A nymph and satyr with a basket, full of grapes, on panel). The text most probably describes this work which was initially left in the artist’s studio for his assistants to replicate, because at least 20 known copies exist today.

If this was indeed the painting in Rubens’ estate inventory, sometime between 1640 and 1645 the painting was presented as a gift to a Flemish broker who helped to distribute Rubens’ work after his death. Nothing more of the painting’s early history is known until 1936 when it was bought by Alfred Chester Beatty, an American mining magnate who took it from New York to Dublin. It has remained in European collections ever since.

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