Despite its title, the painting has very little in common with typical representations of the Earthly Paradise, most notably those by the Flemish painters. Verdant hills, resplendent with plants and ripe fruit are here replaced by a dense wooded landscape. With the exception of a small dog running in the distance, no animals are to be seen. Naked men and women engage in sexual acts, drinking or playing music, in a Dionysian frenzy which echoes that of bacchanals populated by nymphs and fauns.
The innovative use of flat fields of colour, the black contour lines and the almost two-dimensional perspective are telling of the artist’s friendship with Degas and of the new post-impressionist visual language. Zandomeneghi was no doubt influenced by the Synthetism of Paul Gauguin, whom he profoundly admired, and he was a close friend of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, with whom he shared an address in the rue Tourlaque, from 1884 to 1886.
In fact, Zandomeneghi had already experimented with a 'flatter' style, in contrast to his more typical, impressionistic use of dabs and dashes of paint, in some of his earlier works, including Le Moulin de la galette, of 1878. Two preparatory sketches, Sous-bois and Hélène, and a fan shaped pastel on paper titled Nymph and Satyre (showing the same female figure lying on the grass) are an indication of how the present work was the result of a thorough study of figures and landscape.
Notwithstanding Zandomeneghi's success that came with signing a contract with art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who sponsored his three solo exhibitions in 1893, 1897 and 1903, the dealer's exacting demands resulted in Zandomeneghi having a breakdown. To convalesce, he retreated to the quiet town of Gif, in the Chevreuse valley, whose landscape might have inspired the present work.
The death of his dear friend Diego Martelli in 1896 and that of his sister aggravated the mental and physical condition of an already sick and lonely man. Although the collaboration with Durand-Ruel remained fruitful, it is tempting to view The Earthly Paradise as a rebellion against the dealer’s prescriptive commissions and as an outburst of pent up energy and creativity in the artist’s final years.
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