At the center of this painting is the infant god Bacchus. Born of Jupiter’s illicit union with the princess Semele, Bacchus was transported by Mercury to Nysa for safekeeping from Juno’s jealous rage. Nestled in the clouds beside Mercury, the eagle bearing a lightning shaft alludes to the circumstances of Bacchus’s fiery birth. As recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Zeus had fallen in love with Semele, daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia. To punish her wayward consort, Juno tricked Semele into asking the god to appear to her in all his majesty. Powerless to deny her wish, Jupiter came to Semele, who was consumed by fire. However, the baby gestating in her womb was stitched into his father’s thigh and spirited away to Nysa as soon as he was born. In Boucher’s painting, the nymphs marvel at the miraculous infant, whose intoxicating powers as god of the vine are displayed by putti bearing grapes and the leaf-entwined thyrsos with which he will lead his band of followers.
Painted for Jean-François Bergeret de Frouville [d.1783], hôtel Bergeret de Frouville, Paris, 1769;
by inheritance, with Hôtel Bergeret de Frouville, to his daughter, Marie-Charlotte, Paris;
by inheritance with Hôtel Bergeret de Frouville to her second husband, Antoine-Jean-Baptiste Hervé d’Arbonne, Paris France;
purchased in 1811, with Hôtel Bergeret de Frouville, by Gabriel-Louis-François Périer [d. 1815], Paris;
by inheritance, with hôtel Bergeret de Frouville, to his son, Amédée-Gabriel Périer [d. 1838], Paris;
by inheritance, with hôtel Bergeret de Frouville, later hôtel Marcilly, to his cousin, Pierre-Louis Raffard, comte de Marcilly, Paris;
by inheritance, with hôtel Marcilly, to his widow, Eugénie-Zoé, comtesse de Marcilly, Paris;
M. Johnson, c. 1882.
Baron Edmond James de Rothschild [1845-1934], hôtel de Pontalba, rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris, probably 1882 and before 1891;
presumably by inheritance, with hôtel de Pontalba, to his widow, Adelheid [1853-1935], Paris;
by inheritance, with hôtel de Pontalba, to her son, Maurice de Rothschild [1881-1957], Paris;
confiscated by German occupation forces, c. 1940;
restituted to Rothschild family, Paris, c. 1945-46;
baron Edmond Alphonse Maurice Jules Jacques de Rothschild [1926-1997], Paris and Geneva;
(Allwa Handelsgesellschaft, Zurich);
purchased through (Hallborough Gallery, London) by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1972.