This painting has not been on public display since its sale at Drouot in 1953 when it was catalogued as from the school of Rubens. Published soon after by R.-A. d'Hulst as an early work by Jacob Jordaens, its re-emergence constitutes a notable addition to the group of early works by the artist that announced his remarkable presence in the Antwerp art world. This took place shortly before the younger Anthony van Dyck laid claim to be Rubens' rightful heir; Jordaens' early work showed great formal originality, and, of course, the artist was to enjoy a long and fruitful career producing work whose all round merit has gained a wider recognition following the Antwerp retrospective exhibition of 1993.
Unlike Van Dyck, Jordaens' crucial formation probably took place outside Rubens' studio, but like the older artist, he shared a master in Adam van Noort -- clearly a popular, no doubt gifted, teacher, with whom Jordaens enrolled in 1607/8 (R.-A. d'Hulst et al., exh. cat. Jacob Jordaens, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, 1993, pp. 7 ff for full details of the artist's life). He was already fourteen or so years old, and was not registered as a master in the Guild for another eight years. So there seems not to have been a precocious start as was the case with Van Dyck. Although he was first described as a painter in tempera and watercolour, Jordaens' work in these mediums has not survived; his earliest work using oil is dated to circa 1615.
The first dated picture is the Adoration of the Shepherds of 1616 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (d'Hulst, 1993, no. A7); there was to be one dated picture in each of the two succeeding years and then none for a decade. In the New York Adoration, Jordaens has already defined his vision of the world, and found his idiosyncratic manner. The Revel of Bacchus and Silenus, with its puckered faces, perhaps reminiscent of Marten de Vos, is likely to have been earlier and stands comparison with the Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs (ibid., no. A1), his treatments of the Rape of Europa (ibid., figs 67a & b) and the Apotheosis of Aeneas (ibid, no. A15, where dated to circa 1617). Indeed the pose of the nymph in the centre right of The Revel of Bacchus and Silenus is similar to that of Aeneas, while the putti appear to come from the same nursery.
While - as Professor Balis points out - Jordaens' early activity centred on this teacher's home (he married Van Noort's daughter in 1616 and continued to live in his father-in-law's house), the influence of Rubens' art is clear. Balis points out that 'his [Jordaens'] repertoire of figure types and the overall visual effect he strives for in these early years can only be interpreted as a deliberate effort at emulating Rubens' style' (A. Balis, 'Fatto da un mio discepolo, Rubens's studio practices reviewed', in Rubens and his workshop etc, ed. T. Nakamura, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, 1994, p. 112).
The Revel of Bacchus and Silenus is a case in point, as the composition seems to be clearly inspired by Rubens' Nymphs and Satyrs (Madrid, Prado), which, from a reading of photographs of X-rays, Karolien de Clippen ('Rubens 'Nymph and satyr' in the Prado: Observations on its Genesis and Meaning', The Burlington Magazine, February 2007, pp. 76 ff.) has recently shown was retained by Rubens and enlarged and reworked by the artist in his last years. Copies were made perhaps in the studio of the original composition; and it may have been through one of these that Jordaens was inspired. Otherwise one must postulate the young artist's presence in Rubens' studio.
In Rubens' painting nymphs, assisted by putti and a satyr, and in a more perfunctory way, by Silenus and perhaps Bacchus, gather fruit to fill a cornucopia. Hercules had torn a horn (latin cornu) off the head of Acheloüs, now transformed into a bull, and thus the subject of Rubens' picture was the origin of the cornucopia.
Abraham Janssens and a Rubens studio collaborator working with Jan Brueghel the Elder painted the same subject more or less and simultaneously; and Brueghel and Van Balen began their series of paintings celebrating the plentiful fruits of the earth not long after (A. Woollett et al., Rubens & Brueghel, exh. cat., J. Paul Getty Museum and Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, 2006, nos. 13, 20-1). In Jordaens' The Revel of Bacchus and Silenus, Bacchus is seen riding a lion and being offered more drink; nearby is Silenus on his ass and being sick from drink, as satyrs, nymphs and putti garland trees with flowers. There is no cornucopia.
His subject may not in fact be that specific. Professor McGrath has written of Rubens' Bacchic images 'the artist clearly painted them primarily as delightful subjects of a type conveniently justified by ancient precedent' (E. McGrath, 'Pan and the Wool', Ringling Museum of Art Journal, 1983, p. 54, no. 4) Jordaens may have been imbued by the same spirit as Rubens, and so whether there is an identifiable moment in Bacchus' legend in this picture must remain open at this stage.
In one motif Jordaens shows off this originality. While the satyr borne on another's shoulders on the right may owe its origin to Mantegna's print (M. Zucker, Early Italian Masters, The Illustrated Bartsch, 25, no. 006, pp. 93-7 and no. 19, p. 26), the satyr balancing acrobatically on the back of a crouching companion in the centre may be his own invention. Maertin van Heemskerk included acrobats in his famous Triumph of Bacchus (R. Grosshans, Maerten van Heemskerk, 1980 no. 24, of which Otto van Veen made a copy); but this callisthenic display, placed in the centre of the composition in sharp foreshortening, seems to have been the focus of Jordaens' attention.
D'Hulst published a diagram in his 1953 and 1982 publications indicating the extent of what he considered to be enlargements to the support on all sides. Recent technical examinations show that the paint surface and technique in the areas of the panel enlargements is entirely consistent with that in the central panel, and thus it would appear that Jordaens had extended the panel himself. We are very grateful to Dr. Nicholas Eastaugh and Simon Bobak for their technical assistance in the examination of this panel.