Sébastien Barras (1653-1703), mezzotint, as Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus, published A.P.F. Robert-Dumesnil, Le Peintre - Graveur Français, vol. IV, Paris 1839, p. 241, no. 21.
The theme of Sine Cerere et Baccho Friget Venus— literally, "without Ceres or Bacchus, Venus would freeze"— is derived from a line in Act IV of The Eunuch, a comedy written in 161 BC by the Roman dramatist Terence. A canny observation on physical love, which is always helped by good food and drink, the subject became popular among Flemish painters in the seventeenth century, and was treated by artists such as Pieter Paul Rubens, Abraham Janssens, Hendrick van Balen and Jacob Jordaens, to name but a few.1 Typically in these compositions, Bacchus, the god of wine, and Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, both display their attributes (a bunch of grapes and a sheaf of corn respectively) to Venus, who is often accompanied by Cupid. Interestingly, the subject was much less popular south of the Alps and Jan Miel appears to be one of the few artists who painted the subject in Italy.2
Earlier in his career, Miel made his name as one of the Bamboccianti, a group of Northern artists active in Rome in the 1630s around Pieter van Laer (nick-named Bamboccio), who specialized in small works depicting low-life scenes set in the Roman campagna. They were derided by Italian artists such as Andrea Sacchi, Salvator Rosa and Francesco Albani for their base subject matter. Such criticism obviously had a profound effect on Miel who by 1641 was documented in the studio of Andrea Sacchi. Over the next decade he abandoned his earlier style and turned his hand to the more elevated practice of history painting. There are a number of identifiable works from the 1650s in this vein such as an altarpiece of The Madonna and Child with Saints in the Duomo di Santa Maria della Scala in Chieri dating from 1651.3
Although part of the famous collection of Count Moltke (see Provenance), the present painting had been unseen and largely ignored by critics until it appeared at auction London in 1996. Dated 1645, its re-emergence has prompted a re-dating of some of Miel's other history paintings. Scholars now believe the artist must have been producing history and mythological paintings, inspired by his study under Sacchi, much earlier than suggested by the examples of the 1650s mentioned above. For example, the Laban looking for Idols hidden by Rachel (sold New York, Christie's, 26 January 2001, lot 151) can be dated to the mid 1640s like the present work. Miel's admission to the Accademia di San Luca in 1648 is further testament to the fact that he must have been producing history paintings by this date; he was the first Northern artist to be admitted, an honor denied his fellow Bamboccianti, which would never have occurred had he still been producing peasant scenes.
The first recorded owner of this painting was Jean-Baptiste Boyer, Marquis d'Éguilles, who lived in Aix-en-Provence and was an avid patron of the arts. He developed friendships with a number of leading artists of the day including Pierre Paul Puget, with whom he visited Italy to build his collection. He was also an amateur artist and engraver, and the two-volume series of engravings of his collection, in which the present painting is featured, included six plates engraved by the Marquis himself.
1. See M. Jaffé, Rubens. Catalogo Completo, Milan 1989, pp. 184, 192, cat. nos. 191 and 234 and A. Pigler, Barockthemen, vol. II, Budapest 1974, pp. 51-2.
2. A. Pigler, op. cit.
3. See Diana Trionfatrice. Arte di Corte nel Piemonte del Seicento, exhibition catalogue, Turin 1989, pp. 196-7, cat. no. 222, reproduced.
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