This is without doubt one of Jacob Jordaens’ most magnificent compositions. In this work, painted around 1623, a good eight years after Jordaens had become a free master, the painter is at peak of his career. Nothing remains of the clumsiness of his youthful work. Whether the eye stays on the anatomy or the expressions of the figures, on their rhythmic ordering or their gestures, or enjoys the creamy, confident paint strokes or the alternation between the golden light and the transparent shadows, or is tempted by the rich colours of the opulent fruits: everywhere it senses the same impressive harmony. The life-size figures, allowing only a glimpse of the landscape to show through, unfold like a sculpted frieze on both sides of a female nude, seen from behind, standing slightly off-centre and so introducing a certain dynamism into the composition. Her nakedness catches the full light and draws the viewer’s attention. A golden glow strokes her skin, in which nothing reminds us of the cold stone from which her sculptural monumentality initially seems to originate. Rather, as a nymph she belongs, together with her female companions and the satyrs surrounding her, to the category of beings between humans, gods and animals which in antiquity embodied the untameable powers of nature. The grapes that they are all gathering possibly symbolise the rich fertility of nature. The cornucopia on the far right is a reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which tells how it came into being when the horn of Achelous, metamorphosed into a bull, broke off in his fight with Hercules. The water nymphs or naiads afterwards filled it with fruit.
Text: Joost Vander Auwera (after), Museum of Ancient Art. A Selection of Works, Brussels, 2001, p. 142 © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels