Lusty Old Goats: Satyrs in paintings

Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679), The Satyr and the Peasant "Who Blows Hot and Cold" (c 1660), media and dimensions not known, Museum Bredius, The Hague, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend I’m looking at the bad boys and girls of mythology – satyrs and sirens. As everyone who has seen paintings of them knows, satyrs sneak up on sleeping nymphs and rape/seduce/abduct them, and sirens use their beautiful voices to lure sailors to their death before eating them. Both are commonly depicted as being half human: for satyrs, below the waist is goat, and for sirens the lower bits are bird. More fascinating are their differing histories of appearing in paintings. So I’ll start with satyrs today, and show sirens tomorrow.

In ancient Greece, satyrs had a really bad name. They were usually shown with an exaggerated erect phallus – hence the origin of the term satyriasis – and the rest of their body was comically hideous, a caricature which associated them with the god whom they often accompanied, Dionysus, who became Bacchus with the Romans. Like all the worst men, they were addicted to music, wine and women.

One motif which emerged during the Renaissance and remained popular ever since is that of the hirsute, ugly goat-legged satyr surprising a naked young nymph. This is so hackneyed that I won’t do it the honour of showing any of the hundreds or thousands of paintings of that scene. Such images were clearly good business for painters and their overwhelmingly male patrons, but I can’t think of one which has any artistic merit.

Piero di Cosimo’s painting below is very different. It has been claimed that it shows The Death of Procris, but this is clearly an error: Cephalus wasn’t a satyr, Procris was impaled in the chest by a javelin, and was behind cover spying on Cephalus, not out in the open like this.

Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521), A Satyr mourning over a Nymph (or The Death of Procris) (c 1495), oil on poplar wood, 65.4 × 184.2 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Piero’s A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph from about 1495 is a brilliant painting, using the full width of a panoramic panel to show a satyr with his goat legs and distinctive ears, ministering to a dying or dead nymph, who has a severe wound in her throat. At her feet is a hunting dog, with another three in the distance.

Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682), Landscape with Nymph and Satyr Dancing (1641), oil on canvas, 99.7 x 133 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

When not having their evil way with them, satyrs engaged in horseplay (or goatplay, perhaps) with nymphs and sundry other women, including the humans who followed Dionysus, Maenads or Bacchantes. On the left side of Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Nymph and Satyr Dancing from 1641, a Bacchante holds her tambourine (tympanum) aloft, and another bears earthly riches at her left side. A satyr crouches low over a leopard, and proffers a cornucopia filled with fruit to the figures at the right.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (Peace and War) (detail) (1629-30), oil on canvas, 203.5 × 298 cm, The National Gallery (Presented by the Duke of Sutherland, 1828), London. Image courtesy of and © The National Gallery.

Peter Paul Rubens painted an even more complex group in his Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (Peace and War), of which the above is a detail from the foreground. Although Dionysus/Bacchus isn’t present, his chariot is normally drawn by leopards (or similar big cats), and he is accompanied by Bacchantes. Here a satyr leans over one of the leopards to grasp fruit from a cornucopia.

In the nineteenth century, painting satyrs remained a good excuse for a nude woman and the implication of sex, thus remained popular with those stuck in academic style to pander to the outmoded whims of the Salon.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Nymphs and Satyr (1873), oil on canvas, 179.8 x 260 cm, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. WikiArt.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Nymphs and Satyr (1873), oil on canvas, 179.8 x 260 cm, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. WikiArt.

Perhaps inevitably, it is William-Adolphe Bouguereau, arch-enemy of the modern, who provides the best example in his Nymphs and Satyr from 1873. I accept in his mitigation that here it’s the nymphs who are taunting the satyr, but ultimately it’s just another male fantasy on canvas.

Meanwhile, the more progressive painters looked to something different.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), Young Marsyas (Marsyas Enchanting the Hares) (1878), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Elihu Vedder had been thinking about the grisly myth of Marsyas (see below), particularly during 1877. Rather than show the contest between this satyr and Apollo or its grim consequence, Vedder reasoned that Marsyas must have proved his skill with the aulos before the challenge arose. His conclusion was that the satyr might have been charming hares, which led him to paint Young Marsyas or Marsyas Enchanting the Hares (1878).

Vedder shows a young Marsyas in the snows of the New England winter early in 1878, surrounded by enchanted hares. Although a wonderful and original depiction, this painting didn’t do well when it was exhibited at the Universal Exposition in 1878.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Poet and Satyrs (c 1890-95), watercolor and oil (and/or varnish?) and lead white on off-white paper, 30.4 x 23.4 cm, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum (Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop), Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.

Satyrs were included by Gustave Moreau in his lexicon of mythological people and creatures. Poet and Satyrs, painted around 1890-95, is an unusual watercolour which shows the satyrs kneeling before the androgynous poet, complete with their halo and lyre.

A satyr also appears in the well-known fable of the Satyr and the Traveller (classified as Perry 35), which became a popular narrative in paintings during the Dutch Golden Age. In this story, a man made friends with a satyr; when the man’s hands were cold, he blew on them to warm them up. When the two were eating together, the man blew on his hot food in order to cool it. The satyr couldn’t trust a creature whose breath blew both hot and cold, so broke off the friendship.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Satyr Visiting a Peasant (c 1625), oil on canvas, 125 x 96 cm, Muzeum Czartoryskich w Krakowie, Kraków, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacob Jordaens’ Satyr Visiting a Peasant, from about 1625, shows the satyr at a meal in a family home, presumably when the hot food is cooled by blowing on it, as the satyr is giving his reason for leaving.

Constantijn à Renesse (1626–1680), Satyr at the Peasant’s House (1653), oil on canvas, 168 x 203 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1653, Constantijn à Renesse, a former pupil of Rembrandt, painted his version of this fable, in Satyr at the Peasant’s House. This is perhaps more helpful than Jordaens’ in showing one of the family blowing on the hot food on their spoon, although at that stage the satyr’s reaction is less overt.

Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679), The Satyr and the Peasant “Who Blows Hot and Cold” (c 1660), media and dimensions not known, Museum Bredius, The Hague, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

It is perhaps Jan Steen, in his telling of The Satyr and the Peasant “Who Blows Hot and Cold” from about 1660, who strikes the best balance, with a satyr looking quite worried at the viewer, as a man (still wearing his hat) blows on a bowl of hot stew. He also has marvellous attention to details such as the cat skulking under the table, and a rich supporting cast.

Ultimately, satyrs were the bad boys, and bad boys get punished. No punishment could ever be as harsh or as gruesome as that of Marsyas the satyr, who had been painted so affectionately by Vedder.

The goddess Athena is said in some myths to have invented the aulos, a double-piped reed instrument. When she was playing it one day, she looked in a mirror, and noticed to her dismay how she puffed out her cheeks and looked silly, so she threw the aulos away, putting a curse on it that anyone picking it up would be severely punished.

It was Marsyas the satyr who found Athena’s aulos, and taught himself to play it. When he was an expert, he challenged the god Apollo to a musical contest to see who was the more musical: Apollo on his lyre, or Marsyas on his aulos. With the Muses as jury, Apollo’s victory was never in any doubt, giving him the choice of penalty. Out of sheer vindictiveness, Apollo decided to have Marsyas flayed alive.

Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) (1490–1576), The Flaying of Marsyas (c 1570-1576), oil on canvas, 212 × 207 cm, Arcidiecézní muzeum Kroměříž, Olomouc Museum of Art, Kroměříž, The Czech Republic. Wikimedia Commons.

By far the most famous painting of the flaying is one of Titian’s last great works: The Flaying of Marsyas (c 1570-1576).

The satyr has been strung up by his legs from a tree, his arms also bound, and is now having his skin and hide cut off, Apollo kneeling at the left with his blade at Marsyas’ chest. Standing above the god is one of the Muses, playing her string instrument and gazing upwards. Near her left hand are Pan pipes, rather than an aulos, strung from the tree next to the body of the satyr. At the right, another satyr has brought a pail of water. Others gaze on in dismay at the grisly scene.

Tomorrow I’ll look at paintings of sirens, who ate the sailors who they lured with their beautiful voices.