In October 2002 the Staatliche Museen Kassel exhibited an outstanding new acquisition for the Old Master Gallery: the panel Pan and Syrinx by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, a collaboration of around 1617. Originally acquired by landgrave William VIII of Hesse-Kassel, the work vanished in 1813 in the context of the flight of Napoleon’s brother, Jérôme, whose residence as King of Westphalia had been Kassel. The return of this important work to the renowned Old Master ensemble at the Kassel Art Gallery was the occasion for an exhibition on show there in spring, and now on view at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut.
Important loans, among others from museums in Bremen, Brussels, London, Munich, Paris and Schwerin as well as several private collections on public view for the first time, trace the development of a subject from classical literature to a motif popular in 17th-century Antwerp painting. This cabinet exposition demonstrates how the classical story was translated into painting, paying attention to the interaction between original and copy, artistic collaboration and competition. Further, the many variations on this theme show the high esteem in which the Antwerp painters held the compositions of their brilliant fellow painter Rubens, also on the subject of Pan and Syrinx.
The classical Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses tells the fate of the virginal nymph Syrinx. Pursued by the amorous nature deity Pan and cornered at the banks of the river Ladon, she, in her extreme distress, has herself turned into a reed by her sister nymphs. Pan hears the “sweet, mournful sound” of the wind in the reed and makes himself an instrument out of the stalks, which he calls “syrinx”, nowadays better known as “pan flute”. Thus only the name and sweet sound of the flute are all that reminds him of the elusive nymph.
Initially, the scene formed the subject of 16th-century graphic art and book illustrations as the exhibition shows. Based on these first attempts, at the beginning of the 17th century works were created in Antwerp that introduced the topic to painting. Rubens, for whom Pan and Syrinx symbolized positive forces of nature, painted the theme at least four times in the space of twenty years. At the same time Jacob Jordaens and Abraham Janssen, two other great masters of Flemish baroque painting, painted – as a kind of competition – their own, and original, interpretations of Pan and Syrinx.
Not only the artistic competition but also the friendly collaboration of the Antwerp painters ensured the excellent quality of their works. The mostly highly specialized artists often worked on a painting in groups of two or more. Jan Brueghel the Elder, who painted many of his own pictures himself in all details, when he worked on other artists’ paintings, was responsible, for instance, only for the landscape or figures. Polymath Rubens, too, who was a master of all genres, offered his skills to his fellow painters from Antwerp. In his regular collaborations with Jan Brueghel he succeeded in adapting to the changing demands of whether he had the lead, as in Pan and Syrinx (Kassel) or a supporting role, as in Diana and her nymphs spied on by satyrs (Paris).
Rubens’ mastery, acknowledged by painter friends and rivals alike, is also palpable in the strong influence exerted by his interpretations of Pan and Syrinx, found up until the late 17th century in the form of direct references, variations or paintings within a painting.
Michael Eissenhauer, with essays by Joost Vander Auwera, Justus Lange, Christine Van Mulders and Bernhard Schnackenburg, Pan und Syrinx, eine erotische Jagd: Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Brueghel und ihren Zeitgenossen, Kassel (Staatliche Museen) 2004.
Kassel, Staatliche Museen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Kunst (19 March-13 June 2004).