Although this newly rediscovered painting by Poussin is not unpublished - indeed, the great connoisseur G.F. Waagen described it as 'an excellent picture by Nicolas Poussin' in his Treasures of Art in Great Britain in 1854, and it appeared as a work by the artist in a celebrated exhibition in Manchester three years later - it is virtually unknown and has been all but unseen for more than a century, recently sheltering under an attribution to the 'Heytesbury Master' with which Sir Anthony Blunt christened it in 1983.
The Heytesbury Master identifies an anonymous hand fashioned by Blunt in the 1960s to whom he was able to reattribute a number of pictures traditionally given to Poussin; Blunt built up this group of paintings around a canvas depicting a Nymph Surprised by Satyrs, formerly in the collection of Lord Heytesbury and published in 1933 by Borenius (Blunt.R112). In his landmark catalogue raisonné of Poussin's works, Blunt downgraded or reattributed many works that for centuries had been accepted as by Poussin, often clustering then in groups which he gave to different unknown followers of the artist, whom he identified under various monikers of his own creation, including the Hovingham Master, the Silver Birch Master, and the Master of the Clumsy Children, as well as the Heytesbury Master. The latter, according to Blunt 'seems to have been a specialist in the painting of Bacchanals characterized by obscenely grinning satyrs and nymphs either drunk or asleep, which show affinities with figures to be found in the paintings of Carpioni'. In particular, Blunt culled from Poussin's oeuvre a significant number of early paintings, works showing a strongly poetic, or even raw sensuality and an obvious dependence on the example of Titian and the Venetian School, which seemed to him out of keeping with his conception of Poussin as an austere classicist. In recent years, scholars including Konrad Oberhuber, Pierre Rosenberg and Timothy Standring have done much to restore to Poussin this crucial early phase of his career by judiciously returning to his oeuvre the authentic works which Blunt had eliminated.
The present Venus and Satyr (or Nymph and Satyr, or Jupiter and Antiope), which Blunt examined when it was offered for sale from the collection of the Earl of Listowel Trust at Christie's in London in 1983, can now - like the celebrated masterpiece Midas before Bacchus (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) which had also been demoted by Blunt with an attribution to the Heytesbury Master - be returned to its rightful author, Nicolas Poussin. In fact, the painting fits neatly into a larger group of early, Titian-inspired erotic scenes whose authorship had all been disputed by Blunt, and which are once again universally accepted as the works made by Poussin in Rome in the mid-to-late 1620s; these include The Nurture of Bacchus (Mus/aee du Louvre, Paris; Blunt.R64), Sleeping Venus and Cupid (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden; Blunt.189), and Venus (or a Nymph) Spied On by Satyrs (Kunsthaus, Zurich; Blunt.under R113). By a happy coincidence, the three above-mentioned works can be seen together in the current exhibition Poussin and Nature at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (through 11 May 2008), and they are catalogued by Pierre Rosenberg in the accompanying publication, nos. 9, 11 & 12, respectively. Additionally, a Nymph and Satyrs in the National Gallery, London (Blunt under R113), can be included in this group.
The present composition represents Poussin at his most seductive and openly carnal (qualities not entirely compatible with the stoical artist envisioned by Blunt). An entirely nude woman (Venus?) reclines in the woods at the base of a tree, a back-stretched arm covering her eyes, a small bit of drapery (perhaps added later?) barely covering her pudenda. A horned satyr, himself naked, who has stumbled upon the sleeping beauty, turns around to silence Cupid who approaches the scene preparing to shoot Love's dart. Most of the episode is cast in deep roseate shadows, with only a single, strong ray of light illuminating the focus of inspiration and imagination, the opened legs of Venus. Poussin is here at his most painterly, and the drapery on which the goddess reclines is especially richly impasted. The citric yellow and green touches of the foliage are commonly found the Poussin's paintings of this moment, notably Narcissus (private collection, New York) and Midas at the Source of the River Pactolus (Musée Fesch, Corsica), both datable to around 1626 (see Rosenberg 2007/08, cat. nos. 16 & 15, respectively).
In discussing the Sleeping Venus and Cupid in Dresden, Pierre Rosenberg (Poussin and Nature, 2008, p. 152, under no. 11) quotes from a text by Louis-Henri de Lomenie, Comte de Brienne, dating from 1693-95, that could apply equally to the present lot: Brienne, who found Venus 'too nude and too immodest' added that 'the indecency of this Painting consisted in that the goddess, sleeping or pretending to sleep, lifts a leg that reveals too much the nudity of the seat of love'.
Our thanks to Dr. Timothy Standring for examining the present lot in the original and confirming the attribution to Poussin.