The Rape of Proserpina, 1651
Oil on canvas, H. 1.16 m; W. 1.41 m
Signed and dated lower right: N. MIGNARD. INVENIEBAT / ET PINGEBAT. AVENIONE. 1651
Inscription on the verso: Guillaume parfaict.
Provenance: Private collection, Italy.
- Adrien Marcel, « Mignard d’Avignon, Peintre et Graveur (1606-1668) », Mémoires de l’Académie de Vaucluse, XXXI, 1931, p. 1-111.
- Antoine Schnapper, exh. cat. Mignard d’Avignon (1606-1668), Avignon, 1979.
- Antoine Schnapper, « Après l’exposition Nicolas Mignard », Revue de l’Art, 52, 1981, p. 29-36.
- Alain Breton, « La galerie de l’hôtel de Tonduty », Annuaire de la société des amis du palais des Papes, 1997, p. 77-85.
- Jean-Claude Boyer, « Nicolas, Pierre, le Chevalier et les autres », Curiosité. Études d’histoire de l’art en l’honneur d’Antoine Schnapper, Paris 1998, p. 365-379.
The subject of the painting is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book V, verses 359-420). Remaining faithful to the text, Nicolas Mignard transcribes it with precision but combines three subsequent passages of the famous story into one scene in his painting.
The first episode shows Venus who, from mount Erice in the western tip of Sicily, orders Cupid to pierce Pluto with his darts: the sovereign of the underworld has left the kingdom of the dead and is travelling round the island on his chariot pulled by black horses; the young god and his mother sit enthroned on the clouds at the centre of the composition. The next episode, which is the most dramatic one, occupies the entire width of the central panel of the composition: Pluto, who has been struck by Cupid’s dart and is therefore lovesick, has reached Proserpine and, despite her resistance, lifts her up and drags her onto his chariot. The young goddess, the daughter of Ceres and Jupiter, had been picking flowers in the fields to fill baskets. Ovid sets the event on the banks of the lake he refers to as Pergusa, not far from the city of Enna in the centre of Sicily. Further down, the nymph Cyane is shown in a half-length portrait emerging from the waters of the pool over which she reigns; she rebukes Pluto for his violence and stretches out her arms as if to block his way. In the subsequent verses, the poet goes on to describe her impotence and misfortune, and then her slow metamorphosis into a spring (the stream that bears her name still exists in the area surrounding Syracuse).
The tale of the abduction is therefore illustrated in its entirety from the beginning to the end, and the painter does not neglect to include details which make it possible to locate the scene: the lake at the foot of the mountain, the flower-covered slopes as if in an eternal spring – perpetuum ver – strewn with the baskets of the companions of Proserpine, the flowing waters from which the striking naked limbs of Cyane emerge. These tiny precise details refer directly to the Metamorphoses and distinguish the scene from other versions of the myth, the version recounted by Ovid himself (Fasti, Book IV, verses 393-ff.) or the one by Claudian (De raptu Proserpinae).
Nicolas Mignard does not hesitate to contrast the dominant shades of red – the symbol of passion – of the powerful musculature of Pluto to the extreme pallor – the symbol of fragility – of his victim. The same intelligence can be seen in the study of the figures which are sumptuously prepared. Three drawings (figs. 1-3) can be associated with the terrified, fleeing girls depicted in the background. These terrorised figures inevitably evoke the image of the ancient Massacre of the Niobids which the painter could have seen in the Medici collection during his stay in Rome between 1635 and 1636 (several years later this famous group of sculptures would be the subject of an engraving by François Perrier). However, it would seem that in this case Nicolas is recalling another Rape of Proserpine: the one sculpted by Bernini between 1621 and 1622 for cardinal Scipione Borghese. The pose of the abductor, who lifts his victim onto his left thigh, and the tension of the conflicting bodies, are extremely similar in the two works; in the admirable depiction of the marble, the painter has captured one particular detail: the desperate gesture of the girl as she grasps Pluto’s crown, ruffling his hair (fig 4).Drawing on ancient and contemporary art, the Frenchman’s painting is full of references to the Roman world.
The year 165l, when the work was painted, belongs to a period when the emotional and artistic relationship between Nicolas and his brother Pierre (1612-1695) seems to have been very close. They were both in Rome in the period 1635-1636. While his younger brother, who would later be known as “Pierre le romain”, decided to remain there and gain an important role, Nicolas returned to Avignon where he had lived before his departure for Italy. The two brothers remained in contact and, more importantly, applied the same artistic credo to their work: the great tradition of Raphaelesque classicism, which was revived in Bologna and Rome by the Carracci and their followers. Fascinated by the masterpieces of Annibale Carracci at Palazzo Farnese, Nicolas had gained material that he would use immediately on his arrival in Provence: indeed, he was the first to reproduce prints of the paintings in the Gallery and the Camerino Farnese (the latter were engraved on six plates published at Avignon in 1637). Some of the compositions of the Camerino, with characters who are arranged on the different planes in the depth of the vast landscapes, seem to share common elements with the scene depicted in the Rape of Proserpine. However, with regard to these hypotheses, we also need to consider whether Nicolas Mignard had not also had the opportunity to become familiar with other great decorative works that were painted by the Carracci at Bologna at an earlier date: in the frescoes in Palazzo Fava (Stories about Jason) and Palazzo Magnani (Stories about the foundation of Rome) the scenes are depicted in strong horizontal lines in which the organisation of space, the scale of the figures and the general rhythm of the compositions seem to be examples for this work which was painted later at Avignon. ln particular, the fresco of the Enchantments of Medea by Carracci in Palazzo Fava, shows the main character low down, naked in the dirty water, like the more important preceding work depicting Cyane by Mignard.
Was The rape of Proserpine part of a cycle of paintings? Who was it painted for? We do not have any answers at the moment. The signature indicates quite explicitly that the work was conceived of and painted at Avignon: this emphasis and the existence of a possibly memory (see Related Works, no. 4) may indicate that the work was destined for a distant patron who had nothing to do with the city. It is possible that the name of this person or that of one of his heirs is mentioned in the inscription on the back of the canvas for which we propose, with all the necessary caution, the interpretation of «Guillaume parfaict»: could it be “l’abbé Parfait, chanoine de Notre-Dame [de Paris]” for whose cabinet Le Sueur had painted “plusieurs figures coloris et quelques grisailles» (Guillet de Saint-Georges, Mémoires , in Mémoires inédits sur la vie et les ouvrages des membres de l’Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, publiés d’après les manuscrits conservés à l’Ecole Impériale des Beaux-Arts, par MM. L[ouis] Dussieux, 2 vol., Paris 1854, l, p. 172)?