Carle van Loo (Nice 1705 - Paris 1765)
Bacchus and Ariadne
oil on canvas laid on board
110.5 x 142 cm (43½ x 55⅞ in)
Prince of Carignan, Paris, mid-18th century;
Dr. Karl-Jürgen Schumacher, Cologne;
Private Collection, West Germany
Prof. Dr. Hans Ost, Carle Van Loo, Bacchus und Ariadne retrouvé, in: Pantheon, Internationale Zeitschrift für Kunst, Bruckmann, Munich, 1982. In his article, Hans Ost quotes Pierre Rosenberg, “who agreed to my attribution to Vanloo in a letter of 15 September 1981”.
In a beautifully evocative scene, Carle van Loo depicts Ariadne, with cherubs fluttering nearby, looking up adoringly at Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and theatre. Decked out in sumptuous gold silk, Ariadne casually rests her elbow on a plump velvet cushion. With a pale blue ribbon entwined in her golden hair, she is a picture of delicate feminine beauty. Bacchus is arrayed in a rough leopard skin cloak, the symbolism of which reflected the spread of his cult in Asia. An intricate wreath of vine leaves and succulent purple grapes adorns his forehead and in her right hand, Ariadne holds the god’s thyrsus bedecked with vine tendrils. Bacchus’ presence is further underlined by the larger bunch of grapes nestled in the undergrowth in the bottom left hand corner of the work as well as by an upset wine jar nearby.
Ariadne is best known for saving her then lover Theseus from a minotaur-infested labyrinth on the island of Crete. A vignette of the story is embedded within Ovid’s tale of Daedalus and Icarus in his collection of myths, the Metamorphoses: ‘Prince Theseus was aided by fair Ariadne, the daughter of Minos. Rewinding the thread that she gave him, he found the elusive entrance which none had regained before him. He carried the princess off and sailed to Naxos, but there on the shore he cruelly abandoned his loving companion. She wept and wailed in her lonely plight, till Bacchus swept her up in his arms and came to her rescue. “My star”, he declared, “you must shine forever!” Removing the crown from her forehead he launched it skyward. It whirled and spun through the air, and during its flight the gems were changed into brilliant fires, coming to rest once more in the shape of a jewelled circlet between the Kneeler and the bright Ophiucus, who holds the Snake.’¹
The transformed crown can be seen held above Ariadne’s head by the accompanying putti and is an artful representation of the constellation that other artists, such as Titian (c.1485-1576) in his Bacchus and Ariadne (National Gallery, London) preferred to represent in a conventional manner. The hovering star-crown exemplifies the carefully created symmetry which van Loo has employed to render the couple in the midst of an intimate and very private moment. Their complementary contrapposto stance, their bodies facing one another and with opposing arms outstretched, emphasise, in the centre of the composition, Bacchus’ infinitely tender clasp of Ariadne’s smaller, feminine hand. The difference in their skin tone also accentuates the delicate, creamy skin of Ariadne’s décolletage. Together with the suggestive staff that Ariadne cradles, the painting is imbued with a tastefully erotic sensibility and the loosely draped clothes worn by both figures further highlight this.
In contrast to Titian’s famous version of the same subject, executed between 1522 and 1523, van Loo presents Bacchus and Ariadne as a loving couple, rather than focusing on the pomp and raucous entourage that dominate Titian’s rendition. It is possible that Titian’s version was based on the tale of Bacchus and Ariadne as recorded by the Roman poet Catullus rather than on Ovid’s version of the myth. Catullus writes, ‘then all over the shore cymbals resound and drums beaten by frenzied hands.’ Bacchus and his retinue were ‘girded with writhing serpents.’²
In van Loo’s Bacchus and Ariadne, the simplicity of the landscape in which the two lovers are set allows the viewer to focus in far greater detail on their manifest emotion. In versions of the same subject, Thesus’ ship is often detailed on the distant horizon, yet the only allusion to this part of the myth is the glittering silver seascape and an ornate seashell by Bacchus’ reversed foot. The creamy evening light heightens a sense of absorbed solitude for the couple and the clear space around Bacchus, as opposed to Ariadne’s entourage of putti confirms his impressive status as an Olympian deity. Van Loo deployed this same compositional technique to great effect in a number of his other mythological scenes many of which are held today in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
Jupiter and Antiope, as in Bacchus and Ariadne, focuses upon the main protagonists of an Ovidian myth: Antiope, a famous beauty was raped by Jupiter in the guise of a satyr.³ Once more the contrast between the god and the mortal is made strikingly clear by the area of sky left bare around the father of the gods, just as Bacchus is silhouetted against a shimmering, cloudy panorama. Both works employ the subtle pastel shades of blue and pink that were beloved of Rococo artists. The finish on the canvas in Bacchus and Ariadne is also exceptionally smooth with very few perceptible brushstrokes, reflecting another contemporary trend prevalent amongst artists of the Rococo movement.
The Italianate anatomy and vivid colouring of the respective pairs is also deeply revealing of the artist’s evolving style and artistic development. The darker colouring of Jupiter and Antiope and the more complex drapery surrounding the sleeping nymph is in contrast to Bacchus and Ariadne which is believed to be an earlier work. According to Professor Ost, this painting of Bacchus and Ariadne was made in Turin during the artist’s best and most fruitful years. Two etchings by L. M. Bonnet and J. Pelletier after the present painting attest to the picture’s fame. Later it was sent to Paris in 1779 and sold for a substantial sum of money. ‘It was the first work that made van Loo famous in the city on the Seine.’4 The complexity of the accompanying elements, designed to showcase the favoured Rococo trends of elaborate arabesques and undulating coquille shapes, leaves Jupiter and Antiope highly polished yet it lacks some of the charm of the innocently stylised Bacchus and Ariadne. The same high level of detail in the depiction of the female form, however, is clear in both works.
The Hermitage acquired Jupiter and Antiope from an auction of the great art collection of the Marquis de Marigny (1727-1781). Marigny was the brother of Madame de Pompadour and courtier to Louis XV. He was also one of eighteenth-century France’s most important patrons of art and architecture. Marigny was a great exponent of history painting in which van Loo specialised. Another work by van Loo, also from the same collection, is now in the Louvre, Paris: Neptune and Anynome.
Charles Andre van Loo, known as Carle, was arguably the most famous member of an illustrious dynasty of Franco-Flemish painters. He learnt much from his older brother, Jean-Baptiste van Loo (1684-1745) who took charge of his artistic education upon the death of their father. Jean-Baptiste van Loo was patronised by the Prince of Carignan, who appears to have been the original owner of Carle van Loo’s Bacchus and Ariadne.
The brothers moved to Rome in 1714 where Carle received his early training from Benedetto Luti (1666-1724) . Five years later, the two were back in Paris where Carle’s training under the sculptor, Pierre Le Gros exerted a marked impact on the artist’s style. This early exposure to Italian styles as well as French explains his talent for assimilating both styles with enviable facility as is clear in Bacchus and Ariadne.
In 1724, the promising artist was awarded the Prix de Rome though the prize money was withheld which delayed his long awaited trip to Italy. Eventually, accompanied by his nephews and later rival, François Boucher (1703-1770), he set out to Rome. Whilst there, he cemented the two interchangeable styles that would come to dominate his work. He alternated between, and often combined, the refined classicism of Carlo Maratti (1625-1713) and a more contemporary, fluid style in the works of the 1730s. Both are in evidence in Bacchus and Ariadne.
In 1732, van Loo entered the service of the King of Sardinia, Carlo Emanuele III. In Turin he executed numerous paintings for Royal buildings such as the Palazzo Mauriziano, Stupinigi and the Palazzo Reale. In the latter, scenes from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberate were strikingly situated between mirrors and subsequently became so famous through engravings that Turin became an obligatory stop on the Grand Tour.
Returning to Paris in 1734, perhaps as a result of the escalating war in Piedmont, van Loo’s glittering artistic career took off. He was admitted to the French Academie Royale upon submitting his famous work Apollo Flaying Marsyas, another myth told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Demonstrating both his fondness for exploiting such stories as well as a keen mastery of anatomy and Classical antiquity, the work resulted in numerous commissions. The most famous of these was instruction to decorate the apartments of Louis XV at Versailles and the further works for the chateau of Fontainebleau.
In this same vein of executing commissions for the wealthy upper classes, van Loo was in great demand as a painter for Parisian high society. He often employed a sensuous Rococo style that rivalled that of Boucher. Despite producing some of his greatest historical paintings under this tenure, van Loo’s most popular paintings were turqueries, a type of genre scene that depicted contemporary figures in Turkish or other exotic dress.
In his own lifetime, van Loo was considered superior to Boucher. Baron de Grimme referred to him as ‘premier peintre de l’Europe’ and according to Langier, he was even, ‘premier peintre du siécle’. The artist evidently enjoyed collecting art as well as creating it: Landscape with a Hawking Party Stopped by a River by Philips Wouwerman reveals a line of fascinating provenance indicating that van Loo’s collector’s seal is affixed to the work’s stretcher and bought for 6,300 francs.
¹ Ovid, Metamorphoses VIII.172-182; ed. Raeburn. David
² Catullus, Carmina, 64.
³ Ovid, Metamorphoses VI.111 ff.; ed. Raeburn. D.
⁴ Professor Hans Ost (see Literature)