Nicolas Poussin Painting in London, Long Believed to Be a Copy, Gets Reattributed

The National Gallery in London has long held one of the world’s greatest collections of paintings by Nicolas Poussin, with more than a dozen paintings by the 17th-century French artist in its holdings. Recent research has revealed that the museum owns one more Poussin painting than it thought it did.

On Thursday, the National Gallery announced that it had reattributed The Triumph of Silenus (ca. 1637), the first Poussin work ever acquired by the museum. The painting had long been considered a copy, though new findings suggest that it is indeed stylistically similar enough to other works by the artist to be considered a bona fide Poussin.

The Triumph of Silenus features a rowdy party held in celebration of Silenus, the Greek god of wine. It was acquired by the National Gallery in 1824 and has been considered a copy since at least 1946, according to the museum. The work will be featured in “Poussin and Dance,” an exhibition set to open at the museum in October.

In an article for the current issue of the Burlington Magazine, National Gallery curator Francesca Whitlum-Cooper writes that “it is not difficult to see where some of the uncertainty” around the painting’s authorship had come from. Compared to its two sister works commissioned by the Cardinal de Richelieu—The Triumph of Pan (1636), also held by the National Gallery, and The Triumph of Bacchus (1635–36), currently in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City—The Triumph of Silenus long appeared to be of lesser quality.

Its colors are less vibrant than the ones in those works, and it appears to have been painted less skillfully overall. The figures are given less detail than is typical for Poussin, and the depictions of nature are not entirely realistic, in an unusual touch for a painter whose scenes set in ancient Greece and Rome often reflect a bracing sense of accuracy. Between 2019 and 2020, however, researchers studied the work and found that its palette had once been much brighter, putting it more in line with Poussin’s other works. Furthermore, analysis via infrared technology revealed painted-over figures that bear a resemblance to those appearing in paintings accepted to be Poussin.

Whitlum-Cooper writes in the Burlington Magazine that the oddly slack painterly style of The Triumph of Silenus can be explained by a number of factors, including the fact that Poussin was stretching himself thin at the time. “Juggling the demands of these embattled patrons and their respective commissions must have put Poussin under no degree of pressure,” she writes. His assistants may also have aided in the making of the work, and this may explain the differences among the painting and its related works.

In a statement, Gabriele Finaldi, the National Gallery’s director, said, “Thanks to the work of the Gallery’s curators, conservators and scientists, the painting has been recognized as Poussin’s original. This is a very pleasing outcome of our ongoing research into the Gallery’s collection.”

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