Nymphs by a Fountain by Sir Peter Lely

Nymphs by a Fountain by Sir Peter Lely (c.1650)

Peter Lely, a Dutch Baroque painter, was born in Soest, a town in North Rhine-Westphalia, in 1618.  He was actually born with the name Pieter van der Faes.  His mother Abigael van Vliet came from a wealthy Utrecht family and his father Johan van der Faes was a captain in the forces of Baron Walraven van Gent, which served the Elector of Brandenburg and which was stationed in Soest.  Pieter became known as “Lely” which is the Dutch word for lily as on the facade of his father’s house in The Hague was a heraldic lily.  From an early age Peter studied painting under the tutelage of Pieter de Greber and at the age of nineteen became a member of the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem where he had gone to live and work.

At the age of twenty-three Lely left the Netherlands for England and arrived in London around 1642.  He originally focused his works of art on landscapes and history painting but he turned to portraiture as there was a great demand for this painting genre and he soon built up a reputation as a great portraitist.  His commissions came from the likes of Charles I and later Cromwell but the height of artistic career came during the reign of Charles II when he became the king’s official painter and painted many of the royal courtiers and their mistresses in a style, which art historians termed a “Baroque swagger”.  In 1661 the king awarded him a stipend of two hundred pounds a year.  He dominated the portraiture scene from the mid seventeenth century until his death.  Eight years later in 1689 he was knighted but sadly a year later he died at the age of 71.  It was said that he was found slumped before his easel with his palette still in his hand having been working on a portrait of the Duchess of Somerset.

Sir Peter Lily as well as being an artist was also an art collector which during his lifetime was valued at over ten thousand pounds.  His collection was immense having started it once he had arrived in England.  After he died is collection was sold.  Amongst the prized collection were works by Veronese, Titian, Giorgione, Reni, Rubens and Frans Hals, just to mention but a few.

My Daily Art Display for today is one of his mythology paintings which were usually set in Arcadian landscapes.  It is a very erotic painting and is probably his most famous non-portrait work.  It is entitled Nymphs by a Fountain which he completed around 1650, the year after King Charles I was executed  I saw this painting when I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.  It is set in late evening time and in it we see a group of female figures in various states of undress grouped together at the foot of a fountain with its sculpture of a dolphin and putti.  It is a woodland setting, bathed in warm evening sunlight, surrounded by long shadows.  But who are these semi-clad females?  Nobody seems able to pin the scene down to a mythological episode.  So why are they lying by the fountain?  Are they supposed to be asleep?  Too many unanswered questions but maybe there is very little point in seeking answers.  Maybe this is not a painting that needs interpretation.  Maybe we shouldn’t look for hidden symbolism and just take it on face value.  It could well be that, as far as the artist was concerned, it was just an excuse to paint female nudity. 

The figures in the painting have not been romanticised.  The females have dishevelled hair as they are seen lying on discarded silk dresses and white linen shifts  Lely has painted the females, not as perfect body forms, but with, what one would term, “slight imperfections”.  The nymph in the lower left of the painting has a somewhat plump stomach.  The one at the front with her back to us has dirty feet whilst the breasts of the nymph lying on her back to the left of the fountain have flattened with their own eight. This is no portrayal of sculptured beauties with skins of marble.  These are not idealised beauties and yet there is sensuousness about the way they are depicted.  Is this merely an erotic painting which has no hidden meaning and is thus, just for the voyeur who enjoys looking at, and is aroused by, this genre of art?