The painting Bacchus and Ariadne by Guido Reni is a beautiful oil on canvas rendition of the marriage of Bacchus, the Roman version of the Greek god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, to Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, and Queen Pasiphae, daughter of Helios, the god of the sun. It portrays the two lovers alone together on the island where they are supposed to have met and married. The painting was done in Italy, in 1619-1620. The original painting is so far lost to the public, as it was destroyed by a previous owner, only one piece has been found to date. It measures 96.5 x 86.4 cm and is thought to be one of the famous painter Guido Reni’s final works.
The painting is comprised of two full-length figures, with Bacchus, nude, standing up on the left looking to the right, towards Ariadne, and Ariadne, mostly nude, seated on the right side of the painting and looking away towards the right, away from Bacchus. They are set on land in front of a blue cloudy sky and what looks to be a body of water. Guido Reni’s inspiration by both Raphael Sanzio’s Frescoes and Greek and Roman sculptures like are evident in both the subject and the style of many of his paintings. (Guido Reni (Italian painter)) This particular piece is no exception to this theme. It mimics the soft, dreamy quality that you see in many of Raphael’s works, such as his Archangel. (Raphael Sanzio Biography) It carries the same style of painting the humanistic face and form, as well as a similar color palette. In a similar style to Greek and Roman sculptures, the focus of the painting is on a god, as well as his soon to be wife. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) Many Greek and Roman sculptures focused on their gods and goddesses, as well as sometimes their love interests. The focus on love interests, or husband and wife, can also be seen in two sculptures found in ancient Egypt, found in tombs.
Before marrying Bacchus, Ariadne was sailing to Athens to be with Theseus. Theseus winds up falling in love with another woman and leaves Ariadne on a deserted island. Venus takes pity on Ariadne’s heartbreak and sends Bacchus to marry her. (Musei Capitolini ) In his own style, Reni appears to give the two in the painting almost human flaws, a trait which few painters of the time allow into their work. Ariadne appears flustered; almost to be in the middle of a complaint of some sort, and Bacchus seems tired, with puffy eyes that almost seem as if he’s been up all night drinking. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art ) The bit of comedy that Reni adds to this piece though these human flaws in two mythological characters who are traditionally seen as an above human fault, Reni truly makes it his own special rendition of the traditional scene.
Guido Reni began painting at the early age of ten, as an apprentice to Dennis Calvaert. He worked this way for many years, learning from his teacher, practicing his art on his own, developing his talent, and beginning to develop his own sense of artistic styling. Soon enough, he began to set out to work on his own, gaining work with and from many important people in his city. He eventually developed a style that seemed to combine those of baroque and classical artists alike, and at the same time to be a style all its own. As is seen in Bacchus and Ariadne, Reni was known to often use gracefully posed figures, lighter tones, and softer colors than many other artists of his time. (Guido Reni (Italian painter)) Some of his most important works include commissions for Pope Paul V and Scipione Cardinal Borghese; he painted ceiling frescoes on many church ceilings, including one of his most famous frescoes, “Aurora”. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art ) It was through these connections with that Vatican that he was commissioned to paint Bacchus and Ariadne.
The painting was created for Queen Henrietta Maria of Bourbon, who wished to have a painting with a mythological theme for her bedroom in the Queen’s Chambers. The work was commissioned for her by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who was the nephew of Pope Urban VIII. Because of this, the painting quickly became the center of a political struggle to bring England back to the Catholic Church. It became a sort of diplomatic approach for the Vatican in an attempt to bring itself and England back together. However, the painting got stuck in Rome for some time on its way to England, as England was mid civil war by the time the painting was finished. During this time, Queen Henrietta herself fled to France to avoid persecution by those who opposed her husband’s reign, while her husband Charles I was beheaded shortly thereafter. Because of this shift in power, the Vatican’s attempts at using the painting for their own diplomatic reasons failed. Their hope at making political amends with someone in a position of power was thwarted by the end of the current regime in England. The queen was no longer in any position to do anything about the state of England’s religious status or its relationship with the Vatican, Rome, or the Pope himself. She herself went into and remained in hiding and a state of poverty, and no longer had any political affluence in England at all. In 1647, the painting was finally sent to Henrietta in France but a year later the Queen was forced to sell the painting because of a shortage of money. (Bacchus and Ariadne.) This led to the painting falling into the hands of the art collector whose family would eventually cause the disappearance of the original work entirely until very recently.
The work was sold to Michel Particelli d'Hémery, an art collector and the minister of finance in the Kingdom of France. Michel’s wife disliked the painting because of the portrayal of female nudity and after his death, she ordered her servants to destroy it. It was believed for some time to have been destroyed by fire and thought that it would never be recovered, but a recently found piece leads art enthusiasts and historians alike to think that this belief may have been incorrect. The found portion, which depicts a piece of Ariadne, appears to have been cut apart from the rest of the painting, rather than burned in any way, leading experts to believe that the rest of the original painting may very well still be out there somewhere, also cut apart instead of burned, the pieces scattered among different places and people, waiting to be put back together and restored. (Bacchus and Ariadne.) The search for the other pieces of this painting reportedly still goes on, in hopes that the full original painting might someday be able to be brought in front of the public eye is one piece.
In conclusion, this piece is an exquisitely beautiful example of Guido Reni’s work, which reflects his inspiration by Raphael and Greek and Roman sculptures, and those created by Donatello and Michaelangelo, as well as his own special stylistic approach and artistic flair. This individualistic approach is absolutely crucial to the specialness of the piece; it is what makes it stand out not only from some of his other works but from the works of other artists as well. Because of Reni’s style and hidden humor, the painting sheds new light on the familiar subject of the Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne and makes it new and interesting all over again. It is a fresh look at a subject that has been painted many times over by several different artists, and that is why its fame remains today. It is the hope of the artistic community that the rest of the pieces of the original work might someday be found and the painting might be able to be restored and put on display for all to see.
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