It was purchased by the National Gallery in the 1820s as a painting by Nicolas Poussin, the 17th century French master. But The Triumph of Silenus, a bacchanal party, has long been relegated to warehouses, having been repeatedly dismissed by some of the leading experts of the 20th century as a mere copy.
Now the doubts about the image have been cleared and it will be hung in the main galleries with a new label with the name of Poussin.
He will also receive a place of honor in an upcoming Poussin exhibition organized by the National Gallery in London and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Conservation treatment and technical study have cast this 1630s painting in a new light, the gallery will announce Thursday through an academic article in the May issue of Burlington Magazine.
The The picture shows a drunken Silenus, assistant to the Greek god Bacchus, supported by revelers, with one leg dangling over a tiger, amid festivities of rampant ecstasy and joy in a wooded clearing. A satyr drinks from a glass of wine, a companion is lying asleep and two centaurs punish a loving donkey, marking its head with a torch.
The National Gallery has one of the largest collections of Poussin paintings in the world. The staff had noted the irony that their first acquisition had seemed like an unfortunate choice.
It was one of 38 paintings owned by John Julius Angerstein that formed the core of the National Gallery when it was founded in 1824. Its attribution to Poussin became less and less certain and, in the 1940s, it was considered a copy, finally cataloged. simply as “after Nicolas Poussin”.
Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, Associate Curator of Paintings from 1600 to 1800 at the National Gallery, realized that the painting has “the dubious honor of having been rejected by many, but not all, Poussin specialists of the 20th century.”
She told The Guardian: “Until at least 1929, it was considered a complete Poussin … It is around the second quarter of the 20th century that people start to have these doubts about it. Considering all the amazing Poussins we have in the collection, it was greatly outdone and not presented to the public. “
Among those who doubted were Anthony Blunt, former director of the Courtauld Art Institute and Queen’s Pictures Surveyor (until his unmasking as a Soviet spy), and Denis Mahon, a leading connoisseur of the old masters of the 17th century.
But Pierre Rosenberg, former director of the Louvre, believed that he was a Poussin in a “disastrous state.” After its conservation, he will include it in his next catalog raisonné, a definitive study of Poussin’s paintings.
Emily Beeny, associate curator of the Getty, had also sensed its potential and was excited to see details worthy of the master: “For example, the kneeling satyr pouring wine in the foreground, pine needles on his crown. Who else could have painted them? The delicacy of touch feels specific to Poussin. “
Whitlum-Cooper said: “The varnish was so thick and discolored. It was very difficult to know what would be underneath. “
Research and technical analysis carried out by the gallery confirm that it is one of three images in a series of “bacchanalian triumphs” commissioned by Cardinal de Richelieu, the all-powerful French minister.
The chemical composition of the paints and the analysis of the weave of the canvases revealed that all three were painted on canvases cut from the same roll of cloth. Infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence scanning showed changes made during painting, undermining the argument that it is a copy of a finished work.
Part of the problem had been how to reconcile the high degree of finish of the Pan and Bacchus with that of the Silenus. Whitlum-Cooper writes: “However, recent conservation treatment has shown that Silenus is much closer to Pan than previously thought.”
She spoke of her excitement: “This canvas has languished for so long and been overlooked. People will see it in a new light. “
All three paintings will appear in the National Gallery’s upcoming historical exhibition, entitled Poussin and the Dance, the first to focus on this artist’s fascination with dancers and revelers. Scenes from ancient rites and revelries helped make his name and fortune during the 1620s and 1630s.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism