The subject of this colorful and enchanting picture is mysterious. It bears parallels to 'The Dream of Daphnis', an episode drawn from the second book of Roman pastoral verse by the third century A.D. Greek writer Longus. Vignon is known to have painted this rare subject at least once before (in a painting in a private collection; see P. Pacht Bassani, Claude Vignon, 1593-1670, Paris, 1992, pp.321-22, no. 229). Yet, however similar the basic elements -- a sleeping youth, beautiful and otherworldly females who entreat him, a verdant, overgrown glade -- the present painting differs sufficiently from the traditional iconography of the story of Daphnis to suggest that it is probably not the source of the picture. Perhaps, instead, the subject is the choice given to the sleeping soldier Scipio between Virtue and her adversary Pleasure (Voluptas), from a story of the Second Punic War by the Latin poet Silius Italicus (25-101 A.D.); famously, Raphael illustrated this tale from the epic poem Punica in a small panel of circa 1504 in the National Gallery, London.
Whatever its subject, this remarkable painting exemplifies the elegant, recondite Parisian Mannerism of Vignon. Besides its rarefied and fantastical subject matter, Vignon's painting features figures that occupy an oddly compressed, indefinite space; are bathed in a strange, sepulchral moonlight; and are executed in shimmering, incrusted paint that at times takes on the appearance of intricately chased silver. Charles Sterling has noted the 'pre-Rembrandtist' characteristics of Vignon, with links to Venetian caravaggesque painters like Domenico Fetti, and northern artists like Elsheimer and Lastman; but it is perhaps to the eccentric style of Leonard Bramer that Vignon owes his most obvious debt (though, as here, Vignon works on a much grander scale than typically found in Bramer's paintings). Paola Pacht Bassani, who has examined the present lot in the original and confirmed its attribution to Vignon, dates it to 1640-50. Its rich coloring, bejeweled surface and theatrical mannerism can be found in other paintings of that period, including the beautiful Banquet Scene (private collection; see P. Pacht Bassani 1992, no. 224), the aforementioned Dream of Daphnis, and The Banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra (The John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota; see P. Pacht Bassani 1992, no. 376).