With this exhibition the Staatliche Museen in Kassel celebrated the repurchase in 2001 of the cabinet piece, Pan and Syrinx of c.1617, painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), who added the figures, and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), who is responsible for the surrounding landscape elements and the birds. Count Wilhelm VIII of Hessen-Kassel, the founder of the museum, originally acquired the painting in 1747 for his collection. In the early nineteenth century the work was put on a shortlist by Vivant Denon who was sent to Kassel to choose works for the Musée Napoléon in Paris. When Jérôme Napoléon, who resided in the castle in Kassel as King of Westphalia, fled in 1813, the Pan and Syrinx left with him and reappeared in various auctions only in the second half of the twentieth century. Now, almost 200 years later, it is back with its rightful owner.
The exhibition began with Rubens’s well-known, signed Flight into Egypt of 1614 at Schloss Wilhelmshöhe (no. 1) and ended with his late small oil sketch of Pan and Syrinx in Bayonne of 1636, designed for the Torre de la Parada (no. 28) commission, together with a cabinet picture of the same subject by Theodoor van Thulden (1586-1653) and Jan Wildens (1606-1669), on loan from the Louvre to the museum in Hazebrouck (no. 29). The focus was on the newly acquired Pan and Syrinx painting, however. In his introduction to the accompanying catalogue, Bernhard Schnackenburg, the recently retired curator of the Kassel art collections and driving force behind the painting’s acquisition and the exhibition, traces its history from 1747 until 1851. He even located the work in an earlier hanging in the Kassel castle, surrounded by works by Philip Wouwerman and a still life by Jan Fyt.
The subject of Pan and Syrinx is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Pan, half-man, half-goat, is wooing the nymph Syrinx, who escapes his advances by turning into reeds, from which he then creates his pipes. Justus Lange, the curator of the exhibition, discusses the theme in his catalogue essay, tracing it from the sixteenth century through engravings and drawings to the time of Rubens and Brueghel. According to Bettina Werche, the Pan and Syrinx by Hendrick van Balen (1575-1632) in the National Gallery, London (no. 11), although still dated c.1615 in the catalogue and considered to be painted in collaboration with the Elder Brueghel, is entirely by Van Balen and dates from 1605-08. Van Balen therefore would be a likely artist to have introduced such representations in Antwerp. (Bettina Werche’s monograph on Hendrick van Balen is forthcoming. She rejects the Van Balen attribution of another Pan and Syrinx composition in a private collection, no. 10). The Kassel version, a collaboration between Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, is surrounded by another five examples of the theme by or attributed to Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-78), among them a further version where Rubens added the figures (no. 23; private collection, New York). In three of the Pan and Syrinx compositions (nos. 24-26), the collaborators are merely associated with the Rubens workshop or Rubens followers (unpublished, private collection; Schwerin; Lille), while the example in the British Royal collection is here exhibited as a copy after Rubens (?; no. 27; entry by Christopher White). To assist the visitor in differentiating between the Elder and the Younger Brueghel, two paintings of Diana and her Nymphs (nos. 21, 22, Munich and Musée de la Chasse, Paris) by Jan Brueghel the Elder were added, one again a collaboration with Rubens. Kassel also exhibited a painting by the Elder Brueghel from its own collection. In addition, the Staatliche Museen included Joos de Momper’s Landscape with a Village in Winter of c.1615, painted with the Elder Brueghel (no. 2).
Christine van Mulders contributes an overview of Rubens’s collaboration with Jan Brueghel the Elder and the Younger, the topic of her dissertation. (This subject will be taken up specifically in 2006 in an exhibition planned jointly by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and Mauritshuis; some of the opinions formed in the Kassel exhibition might find a response there.) The possibility to compare the various collaborative efforts and possibly sort out specific artists from the generic attribution to the Rubens workshop was the great challenge in Kassel.
Joost Vander Auwera finally discusses the Kassel Pan and Syrinx with related compositions by Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) and Abraham Janssen (c.1571-1632), dated c.1618-19 and c.1619, respectively. In these two, full-size paintings the figures are much more prominent, while the landscape is reduced to basics like the bundle of reeds (nos. 19 and 20). Small bronze sculptures of the Venus Medici and the Venus Kallipygos as well as a marmor torso of an Aphrodite from the collection of Antiquities in Kassel were included as prototypes for the Syrinx figures.
Among the few drawings in the exhibition were two sheets by Rubens, the study of Four Female Figures (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and the Reclining Pan (National Gallery of Art, Washington) as well as a Pan and Syrinx by Karel van Mander (1548-1606) from the Uffizi, Florence. The female figure in the Amsterdam drawing, likely inspired by an antique statue of the Venus pudica type that Rubens copied in Rome (preserved in copies in the Rubens cantoor) probably served as a guideline for the Kassel painting.
Besides Justus Lange, who wrote most of the catalogue entries, texts were also contributed by Agnes Tieze and Thorsten Smidt. The rather outré design of the catalogue invites you to act as a voyeur in this exhibition which does not do it justice.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art