Day 2 – Boucher, Pan and Syrinx, 1759, National Gallery, London.
Originally posted on 20 March 2020
Day 2, and my thoughts turned to pandemics – don’t ask me why. The term comes from the Greek words ‘pan’ and ‘demos’, meaning ‘all’ and ‘people’. This, in turn, made me think of Pan, the Greek god of nature, fields, hills and groves, of shepherds and the flocks, of growth, and fertility and therefore not unconnected to sex and sexuality. He’s half man and half goat, and let’s face it, who doesn’t occasionally want someone who’s a bit of an animal? The origin of his name, is, as so often, lost in the mists of time, but oddly it’s not entirely unconnected with the English word ‘pasture’. However, almost certainly it has nothing to do with the notion of ‘all’ – although some folk etymologies, even in ancient times, suggested that it did.
Today’s picture, like yesterday’s (#POTD 1) was inspired by Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. This time it is Pan who has fallen in love with a nymph. Syrinx, like Callisto (painted by Titian in one of the Poesie), was a follower of the chaste goddess Diana. Terrified of Pan, she fled, and sought shelter with the river nymphs, who obligingly turned her into a clump of reeds. Pan’s frustrated sighs caused these reeds to vibrate, and the sound was surprisingly beautiful – so he cut them down and made the first set of panpipes.
Boucher’s painting is an image of typical Rococo naughtiness, with ample dimpled and flushing flesh willingly displayed. One cupid flies up to the right with an arrow and a flaming torch (in the words of the poet, ‘Come on baby, light my fire…’), while a second seems to grab Pan to pull him on – or hold him back. Pan is already clutching at the reeds, although Syrinx is anything but transformed – he seems frustrated, because he can’t get what he wants. Maybe that’s because Syrinx simply isn’t available, seeing how she seeks solace in the arms of a river Nymph. The latter is identified by the waterweeds in her hair, and by the jug of eternally flowing water on which she leans – the source of her own personal stream. The story really doesn’t call for two naked women, and there’s no real reason why they should be so closely clinging, apart from Syrinx’s need for protection.
This is the point at which I’d like to know more, but as yet I have not found an expert on ‘Lesbianism in the Art of François Boucher’. This reads like the title of an academic paper, and, if all else fails, I am going to have to write it myself. However, I do know that 1759, the date the image was painted, falls at an interesting time in the history of lesbianism. The year before, the Marquis de Croismire had involved himself in the affair of Marguerite Delamarre, an unwilling nun. The Marquis tried to use his position in society to liberate her from the convent. Shortly after this, Denis Diderot came up with a ruse to try and trick the Marquis to act once more, and started writing letters from a fictional nun, Suzanne, who, like the real-life Marguerite, was desperate to get out of the convent in which she had effectively been imprisoned. These letters developed ian epistolary novel La Religieuse, initially and private and personal affair which was eventually published posthumously in 1792. It covers many subjects, not least of which was corruption among religious institutions – and notably, the perverse sexual practices (i.e. lesbianism) that the other nuns were forcing upon the unwilling Suzanne, who needed someone – perhaps the Marquis de Croismire? – to rescue her. The assumption, of course, was that the nuns had only turned to each other as they had no men to hand – oh, the arrogance of straight men!
Meanwhile in Vienna in 1760, the year after Boucher’s painting, the eldest son of Empress Maria Theresa, the soon to be Emperor Joseph II, was married to the beautiful, young Isabella of Parma, who promptly fell in love with Joseph’s sister Maria Christina. A passionate correspondence ensued, but the young girls were separated and, after her death, Maria Christina’s letters were destroyed, so only half of the correspondence survives. That half is delightful, touching, and, ultimately, moving.
Is there any connection between Diderot’s novel, the affair of Isabella and Maria Christina and Boucher’s painting? Was there something in the water around 1760? Apart, that is, from Syrinx… I’d love to know! Perhaps more importantly, how relevant are paintings like this today? It might be worthwhile pointing out that the name ‘Syrinx’ is the origin of our word ‘syringe’: do remember that when they manage to develop a vaccine. And Pan? As god of the wide-open spaces, he spent much of his time relaxing with the sheep, wandering through the fields calmly playing his pipes. But if he awoke suddenly from his midday nap he would shout out, causing the sheep to run away with a sudden fear that he had inspired. The Greeks called it ‘panikos’. His name is the origin of our word ‘panic’. Remember him when you can’t find any toilet paper.