Bacchus in the Midst of his Court
(Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre)


Pierre was overshadowed by Boucher during his lifetime and his work has only recently been rehabilitated. He studied first with Natoire, winning the Grand Prix in 1734 at the age of twenty. In Rome from 1735 to 1740, little is known of his work during this time when the Academy was under the direction first of Vleughels and then De Troy. Received into the Academy in 1742 with Diomedes Slain by Hercules (Montpellier), he made his Salon debut with Psyche, abandoned by Cupid, consoled by Nymphs in 1741, presenting works at the succeeding Salons (1742 – 1751), and, after a break, at those of 1757, 1761 and 1769. He succeeded Boucher as First Painter of the King in 1770 and assumed the Directorship of the Academy, after which he virtually abandoned painting. His early history paintings such as the Death of Harmonia (New York, Metropolitan), exhibit a brilliant technique and mastery of composition which is absent in some of his later works. His delicate palette, always a little colder than Boucher’s, and more controlled style were particularly suited to the large-scale religious works which can be counted as among his most notable achievements. The decorative bambochades which he painted from the mid-1740’s had considerable success with the public but did not endear him to the critics. His difficult personality made him unpopular with his contemporaries but as First Painter he was nevertheless, with the Count d’Angivillier, the most influential figure in French artistic life during the reign of Louis XVI.

This delightful painting is a variant of a large scale composition eventually placed in the dining room of the New Trianon at Versailles. Four paintings had been commissioned by the Crown, each to commemorate the principal foods as well as the seasons, and Pierre was given Fish. Unhappy with this, he exchanged commissions with Doyen, and received the latter’s command, the Grape Harvest (Vendange). In 1771, Pierre asked that Hallé be given this commission but the latter’s painting along with the other three commissioned for the room displeased the King and they were eventually placed in Fontainebleau. Pierre then altered his Bacchus (3.00 x 2.38 m), originally intended for Choisy, by changing the figure of the young God to that of a Maenad, thus converting it to the original commission of the Grape Harvest so that it could be placed in the Trianon.

Like the exquisite Bacchanale in the Musée Crozatier, Le Puy, Pierre has placed two elegant and seductive female figures at the foot of a tree in front of a substantial sculptural monument. In the Le Puy painting a stone figure of Pan dominates the composition, here the urn is in shadow with vines trailing from the tree beside it. Another comparable painting on the same scale as ours, the Bacchus and Ariadne now in the Stanford University Museum of Art, is handled in a similar fashion. The sleeping Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, lies with her head on the lap of the young God of wine. As in our painting a large tree divides the composition, grapes and urns lie on the ground. Pierre demonstrates his indebtedness to Noel Nicholas Coypel’s 1726 Bacchus and Venus (then in the collection of M. Vigné de Vigny and now in Geneva, Museum of Art and History). Coypel places the inebriated God receiving yet another cup of wine from the naked Venus while two female attendants are picking grapes and a third is passionately kissing the young cupid. The erotic content of Coypel’s picture is more blatantly rubensian and symbolizes the intoxicating power of wine and love. Two paintings by Natoire, The Triumph of Bacchus (1747, Paris, Louvre), and his Bacchanal of 1745 (Houston, Museum of Fine Arts), are also echoed by Pierre but Natoire’s paintings display a rococo lushness and obvious eroticism absent in the work of Pierre.

In our composition the standing male figure represents the young Bacchus, before debaucheries have thickened his torso. Bacchus was the son of Zeus by the mortal Semele, Princess of Thebes. A handsome youth, he stands holding in one hand his Thyrus (a wand normally tipped with a pine comb but missing in this case), entwined with vine leaves. His other hand reaches out for a bowl of wine being prepared by a naked Maenad. On the upper right a bearded satyr reaches for more grapes. On the left two clothed Maenads bring more baskets of grapes which they hand to another satyr, kneeling before them. The delicate handling of the figures and the soft pinks and creamy skin tones in this work are characteristic of Pierre’s oil sketches and smaller paintings and may be contrasted with the bolder style of his earlier pictures. A spirited sketch for the Versailles painting, with the standing figure of Bacchus turning away from the two Maenads, is in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

32 x 25 1/2 inches (81.3 x 65.7 cm)
Oil on Canvas

Provenance: Early history unknown; Private Collection, Paris.


Matthiesen Gallery & Stair Sainty Matthiesen 1996

Where is It?
Acquired by a collector
Historical Period
Rococo - 1720-1780
1996-Paintings 1600 - 1912.
26 colour plates, 144 pp. £12 or $20 inc. p.& p.

(Click on image above)
Price band
Sold or not available