Rubens painted this exuberant image of a nymph and satyr around 1620, when his creative prowess was at its very peak. It was during this period that he was engaged to paint the first of his major cycles of paintings, forty large compositions for the ceiling of the former Jesuit church (now St. Charles Borromeo) in Antwerp. Without a hint of moral admonition regarding the dangers of drunkenness and licentious behavior, this painting celebrates what Fiona Healy has aptly described as ‘the life-giving force of nature that is essential to man’s happiness and survival’, as indicated by the bountiful cornucopia that serves as ‘a celebration of life itself, of fecundity, creativity, love and procreation’ (op. cit.). Such a theme would have been of the utmost prescience for Rubens professionally, who in 1621 was named confidential agent to Isabella Clara Eugenia, Archduchess of Austria, in the search for durable peace between the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic following the expiration of the Twelve Years’ Truce.
Images of satyrs were a favorite subject for Rubens and the artists in his circle, among the most memorable being Rubens’ Two Satyrs in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich (fig. 1). Traditionally dated to a year or so before the present work, the Munich painting may well have furnished Rubens with a compositional solution for the figure of the satyr in this image. In both paintings the satyr is depicted as a physically imposing figure who is seen more or less frontally, his head lowered slightly as his eyes fix upon the viewer and mouth curls into a mischievous smile.
It is perhaps not coincidental that the satyr’s face in both paintings bears an uncanny resemblance to one that appears on the so-called ‘Rubens Vase’ in The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (fig. 2), a Byzantine agate vase carved in high relief that Rubens had acquired in 1619. If, as Konrad Renger has previously posited, the vase was indeed of import to Rubens’ conception of the satyr in both the Munich painting and the present work, its acquisition date would seem to provide a terminus post quem of 1619 for both paintings (see Konrad Renger, ‘Entstehung und Veränderung von Rubens’ Bildgedanken. Zum Beispiel die Zwei Satyrn in der Alten Pinakothek’, in Concept, Design and Execution in Flemish Painting (1550-1700), eds. Hans Vlieghe, Arnout Balis, and Carl van de Velde, 2000, pp. 261-265).
The high esteem in which Rubens’ depictions of satyrs were held by their 17th-century viewers is intimated by Roger de Piles’ 1677 description of a similar painting of a satyr before a rock face in the collection of Armand Jean de Vignerot du Plessis, duc de Richelieu. De Piles praised Rubens’ ‘forceful use of colors’ as well as his ‘judicious’ way of illuminating the satyr’s flesh tones, statements that are equally applicable to this painting (see R. de Piles, Conversations sur la connoissance de la peinture, Paris, 1677, pp. 148-149). That De Piles had a different painting in mind is, however, confirmed by the slightly larger horizontal format of the Richelieu painting and its depiction of only the singular figure of a satyr, without an accompanying nymph. Though no painted or engraved image of such a painting is known, it is probable that Richelieu owned a now-untraced version of the Satyr and Bacchante—the finest known version of which is a studio example on copper sold Sotheby’s, New York, 8 June 2017, lot 24—but without the accompanying female figure (fig. 3). Indeed, until she was revealed in 1981, the nymph in the present painting had been overpainted, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to make it more akin to the work that so imprinted itself upon De Piles’ imagination.
This painting has been considered an autograph work by all major Rubens scholars and was included as such in the seminal exhibition A House of Art: Rubens as Collector organized by the Rubenshuis in 2004. Among the reasons for its unanimous acceptance is what Julius Held described in a letter dated 7 March 1993 to the painting’s previous owner as the ‘striking pentimento in the wicker-basket’, suggesting that it was a ‘clear indication that we have here the original version of the composition before us’. The basket of fruit originally included two additional apples or quinces, which Rubens evidently painted out during the process of creation and which are not present in any other known version, including the example given to Rubens that is now on permanent loan to Liechtenstein, The Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna.
Various scholars, including Didier Bodart (1990), Justus Müller Hofstede (1991), and Michael Jaffé (1992), have suggested that the still life and animal specialist Frans Snyders may have painted the fruit in the present painting. For his part, Held thought it possible that Snyders contributed the fruits but could not exclude the possibility that Rubens executed the basket himself. Such collaboration was commonplace in a studio as active as Rubens’, and, as Anna Tummers has pointed out, was prized by cultivated collectors. When, in 1618, Rubens offered Sir Dudley Carleton, a sophisticated connoisseur and British ambassador to the Netherlands, ‘paintings by [his] hand’ in exchange for antique sculptures in Carleton’s collection, Carleton chose not only works entirely by Rubens but explicitly those he executed together with specialists, among them the larger-than-life-sized Prometheus Bound in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for which Snyders supplied the eagle (fig. 4; see A. Tummers, ‘“By His Hand”: The Paradox of Seventeenth-Century Connoisseurship’, in Art Market and Connoisseurship: A Closer Look at Paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens and their Contemporaries, eds. A. Tummers and K. Jonckheere, Amsterdam, 2008, p. 43).
So close were Rubens and Snyders that when the so-called Specificatie (a list of works compiled for auction following Rubens’ death) was made, Snyders was one of three assessors of the works of art in the estate. Among the works listed in Rubens’ collection was one described under no. 174 as ‘Une piece 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') (see J. Denucé, De Antwerpsche ‘Konstkamers’: Inventarissen van kunstverzamelingen te Antwerpen in de 16e en 17e eeuwen, Antwerp, 1932, p. 63). Though it cannot be said with certainty as no dimensions are given, scholars have tended to believe that the reference alludes to the present painting. The work in the Specificatie would have served a dual function as a model for studio copies and as a part of the artist’s own collection at his palatial accommodations in Antwerp (fig. 5). Because more than twenty copies of the present painting are recorded—far more than are known for the aforementioned horizontal composition—it follows that the present painting, the prime example of this composition, is likely to have been the work described. Moreover, the painting, or one of its variants, appears at lower right in an interior of an artist’s studio painted by Cornelis de Baellieur I, a further indication of its utility as a model for studio assistants (fig. 6).
If this painting was in fact the one described in the Specificatie, it was subsequently presented as a gift to Salomon Nobeliers of Brussels for services rendered during the sale of paintings from Rubens’ house to Philip IV (see P. Génard, ‘De Nalatenschap van P. P. Rubens’, Antwerpsch Archievenblad, II, 1865-66, p. 86, under no. XLV). Nothing more of its early history is known until its acquisition in 1936 by Alfred Chester Beatty, an American mining magnate who earned the name the ‘King of Copper’ due to his extensive holdings of copper mines in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and the Belgian Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo). Beatty moved to Dublin in 1950 and was knighted in 1954, the year in which he opened the Chester Beatty Library in his adopted city to house his collection of manuscripts, miniatures, prints, drawings, rare books and decorative arts. Though Beatty’s collection of paintings primarily consisted of 19th- and 20th-century works, a number of which he donated to the National Gallery of Ireland, it is unsurprising that the modern appearance of this work likewise resonated with his aesthetic sensibilities.