Nymphs and Satyr was painted in 1873 by William-Adolphe Bouguereau whose Neoclassical academic works mark the end period of the power of the Academy in France.
This was painted a year before the first Impressionist exhibition and shows the maidens’ frolics with the satyr, a figure from Greek mythology, in his native woodland.
After decades of obscurity (many of Bouguereau’s known pieces are still unaccounted for), the painting reappeared in the 1940s, in New York. It is currently to be seen at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Interestingly, it is one of Bouguereau’s artworks that have always been in American hands, since its original purchase in 1873.
We are presented with a vision from classical myth, ostensibly derived from a verse of Publius Statius which the author appended to the painting itself: “Conscious of his shaggy hide and from childhood untaught to swim, he dares not trust himself to deep waters.”
The object of that quotation is clearly a satyr, a lustful male spirit symbolizing animal sensuality. Bouguereau depicts him with his recognizable attributes: hooves, animal hide in parts of his body, equine ears, and goat-like beard.
The genitalia of all the naked figures on the scene are strategically hidden from sight, otherwise, those of the satyr might have appeared particularly challenging to portray: he is classically supposed to have a permanent erection.
Nymphs — female spirits representing the powers of nature and commonly depicted as innocent — are trying to drag him playfully into the water which he, we realize by his opposition, does not want to enter. One of his hooves has already dipped past the edge.
In this marshland composition, classicist geometries have arranged a central group of strongly parallel figures: the nymph to the left is pushing the satyr with one hand and is therefore inclining backward and to the left — just like the satyr himself.
Two nymphs on the right pulling the satyr establish the opposite, rightward lines instead. The single nymph who is holding a clump of the satyr’s hair, who is not pulling any particular way but merely preventing the satyr from fleeing, and who appears to be signaling to the other nymphs to come help, does not represent either a leftward or a rightward power line but one which is only diagonal and therefore neutral to the squabble of that central group of four.
Three more nymphs are sitting in the background to the right and observing. Their lack of desire to join in with the fray reinforces the impression, already recommended by the laughter of the nymphs involved, that this is an act of jolly mischief rather than true aggression.
As a Neoclassical composition, this painting was crafted on the basis of extensive preparatory studies of each one of the figures. Their anatomies are punctiliously realistic. As a distinctive Bouguereau trait, the beautiful nymphs are highly suggestive, in their faces most especially, of real human models — particularly the main nymph to the right.
This is what gives us an exceptionally strong impression that, far from being idealized and divine entities, these are human women specially chosen to pose because of their beauty.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr is in the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, United States of America.