For almost 60 years a National Gallery painting was dismissed as a copy and languished in their storerooms, but now experts have confirmed it is indeed an original work by the renowned French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).
“Thanks to the work of the Gallery’s curators, conservators and scientists, the painting has been recognised as Poussin’s original. This is a very pleasing outcome of our ongoing research into the collection,” declared Dr Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery.
Dating to around 1636, ‘The Triumph of Silenus’ depicts the drunken companion to Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, in the throes of a riotous party. Silenus’ party is so wild that the god even uses a live tiger as his footrest.
It was among the first paintings to enter the National Gallery collection when it was founded in 1824, and its original attribution to Poussin had not been questioned at the time. Experts began to doubt the painting’s authenticity in the 1940’s, having been put off by the dull colours and unusual style.
“Until at least 1929, it was considered a full Poussin,” explained Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, the National Gallery’s associate curator of paintings 1600 to 1800. “It’s around the second quarter of the 20th century that people begin to have these doubts about it. Given all the amazing Poussins we do have in the collection, it was very much edged out and not presented to the public.”
Among the most noteworthy sceptics were leading 17th-century specialist Denis Mahon (1910-2011) and Anthony Blunt (1907-1983), the former director of the Courtauld Institute of Art and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures who was later unmasked as a Soviet Union spy in 1979.
Conservators now believe the painting, once considered lost, is one of three Triumph paintings commissioned around 1635–36 by Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642). Under several layers of discoloured varnish, the conservators identified pigments similar to those in the other two Triumph paintings.
“The three ‘Triumphs’ Poussin painted for Cardinal de Richelieu play such an important role in the artist’s career,” remarked Whitlum-Cooper. “It was on the strength of these works that he was summoned back to France to paint for the king, which is what ultimately led to his being seen as the founder of the French School of painting.”
The reattribution brings the total number of Poussin’s paintings at the National Gallery up to 14, making it one of the world’s most significant collections. It will take prime position in the gallery’s upcoming exhibition ‘Poussin and the Dance,’ running from 9 October 2021 to January 2022.