Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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Myth and Majesty: The Humanistic Tradition
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Peter Paul Rubens
Three Nymphs with a Cornucopia (Ceres and Two Nymphs with a Cornucopia), 1625-28
Oil on panel, 30.9 x 24.4 cm
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, inv. DPG43


Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

Three blond nymphs fill a large cornucopia. The nymph seated on the left is nude to the waist, wears blue drapery, and turns to raise her right hand to the top of the horn. A second seated nymph is also nude with red drapery and extends her left hand down to gather fruit from a basket on the ground. The third nymph is dressed in a grayish blue gown and stands at the back right supporting the horn of plenty. The abundant fruit is accented with color, and a large melon and two apples appear in the immediate foreground. The origins of the cornucopia were explained by Ovid (Metamorphoses, 9.87-88). Achelous recounted at a banquet that he had fought Hercules three times, finally transforming himself into a bull, one of whose horns Hercules broke off; it was filled by naiads with fruits and flowers, thus creating the horn of plenty. Rubens's painting Achelous's Meal of about 1614-15 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; M. Jaffé 1989, no. 286) depicts two nymphs carrying the cornucopia.

This sketch is the modello for a large painting in the Museo del Prado, entitled Ceres and Two Nymphs, that also depicts three nymphs with a cornucopia. In that work the pose of the nymph on the left has been changed; she drops her right hand into her lap and holds ears of corn—Ceres' symbol as the goddess of agriculture and earth-mother of fertility. In the Prado's painting, the fruit and newly added animals (a bird, parrot, and monkey) were probably executed by Rubens's collaborator, Frans Snyders. A large tree is also introduced at the back left, and the nymph at the back right assumes a more static pose than her counterpart in the Dulwich sketch and has features somewhat reminiscent of those of Hélène Fourment. Julius Held (1980, vol. 1, p. 344), who titled the present work Nymphs Filling the Horn of Plenty, disputed the identification of the figure in the Madrid painting as Ceres, pointing to the source of its pose in a Roman marble (now in the Uffizi, Florence), which in Rubens's day was believed to depict the naiad Cymothoë, mentioned by Virgil (Aeneid, 1.144). Michael Jaffé (1989, p. 231) also observed that the source for the seated nymph on the right is a classical sculpture, now preserved in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, depicting Aphrodite. The Madrid painting probably is to be identified with the painting described as "Three Nymphs with a Horn of Plenty [Een stuk van dry Nymphen met den horne des Overvloeds]" that was in Rubens's studio at the time of his death (see Denucé 1932, p. 163). It presumably was acquired for Philip IV from the artist's estate; another (lost) version of the theme mentioned in the Spanish royal inventory of 1636 was ordered by the king in 1628 and included a satyr and a tiger. Yet another design by Rubens depicting three female nudes with a cornucopia is the so-called Coronation of Abundance of about 1620-22 in the Galleria dell'Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome (see M. Jaffé 1989, no. 696).

Max Rooses (1890, p. 133) dated the sketch and the Prado's painting about 1628, but R. Oldenbourg (1921, p. 459) and Jaffé (1989, p. 231) both dated the works a decade earlier, or about 1617. Held (1980, p. 345) proposed a date of 1625-27, following Ludwig Burchard (whose opinion was quoted in exh. cat. Rotterdam 1953-54, no. 70), who favored 1625-28.


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