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Pan and Syrinx

Jean-François de Troy
Pan and Syrinx, 1733
Oil on canvas
90.5 × 73 cm
Purchased 2000

Pan and Syrinx is one of Jean-François de Troy's most virile and energetic paintings, and the first erotic, or gallant, mythology to enter the National Gallery's collection.

Trained in Paris by his father, de Troy spent seven years in Italy, only to return to France in 1706, where he promptly adopted the manner of Antoine Coypel, the foremost history painter of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. He became a full member of the Académie in 1708, quickly rising within its ranks at a time when royal patronage was at its lowest ebb. For the next decade, he painted mostly cabinet pictures of religious and mythological subjects for the private market. These earlier works are distinguished by a careful, conservative technique. In the course of a series of decorative commissions in the 1720s, the artist was able to realize his ambitions as a history painter, introducing a new sensuousness and painterliness into this highest of genres.

In keeping with the new style, de Troy's Pan and Syrinx is a rich and provocative treatment of a popular theme. The tale of Pan's frustrated assault of the nymph Syrinx is recounted in several classical texts, most memorably Ovid's Metamorphoses. Born half man, half goat, Pan was mocked by the nymphs, who invariably spurned his lustful advances. He developed an overwhelming passion for the chaste Syrinx, one of Diana's attendants, and pursued her in the woods as she was returning from Mount Lycaeus. Upon reaching the edge of a stream, she implored her father, the river god Ladon, to rescue her: this he did by transforming her into marsh reeds at the very instant of Pan's embrace. Finding himself alone with a cluster of marsh reeds in his arms, the god was so charmed by the sound of the air whistling through the reeds that he fashioned an instrument of seven pipes, to be used thereafter by his followers, the satyrs, in their revels.

In excellent condition, with virtually no abrasions or retouching - and with its bravura impasto remarkably intact - de Troy's Pan and Syrinx is an outstanding example of an erotic mythology. De Troy's robust colouring, animated figural groupings, and highly charged treatment of the female nude would be equalled in the following generation only by François Boucher, whose early history painting, The Judgement of Susannah (1722-1723), entered the National Gallery's collection in 1997.