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The Education of Bacchus. Black chalk with gold embellishment on beige-coloured paper. 17.4 x 23.0 cm. Circa 1830.
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The painter, sculptor, draughtsman and decoration painter, Pelagio Palagi, trained at the Accademia Clementina in Bologna. His early work reveals influences of the classicism of Andrea Appiani and Luigi Sabatelli. In 1806 Palagi continued his studies at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, where he was greatly inspired by the work of Vincenzo Camuccini and Antonio Canova. From 1815 to 1832 the artist lived and worked in Milan, then an important and progressive artistic centre and the cradle of Italian Romanticism. Like his pupil, Francesco Hayez, Palagi successfully combined in his work both the classical tradition and the new Romantic trend. Palagi subsequently reached the pinnacle of his artistic career in the royal residence of Turin. Many surviving public monuments testify to his activities there. No less a figure than Stendhal held the artist in great esteem, mentioning him more than once in his major work The Charterhouse of Parma.
The subject of our drawing has not been unequivocally clarified. A drawing on a related theme and with a similar composition was auctioned in Milan in 1996 (Finarte, Dipinti del XIX secolo, 18 December 1996, No. 143). A quiver lying on the ground reveals the playful boy in this version to be Amor. That attribute is missing in our drawing, however, and it can be assumed that Palagi has depicted the young Bacchus, son of Jupiter and Semele, who was brought up by nymphs after the death of his mother.
Mythological subjects of this kind with an element of subliminal eroticism were very much to Palagi’s taste. He was a highly gifted draughtsman and the extensive tribute in Nagler’s Künstler- Lexikon underlines the standing Palagi enjoyed in his lifetime. Georg Kaspar Nagler praised “his great dexterity” in the “depiction of the young nude”, and our sheet testifies admirably to Palagi’s skills as a draughtsman. The three nymphs are rendered in a fluent and apparently effortless drawing style that betrays a detailed study of the human body. The finely differentiated use of the chalk gives their bodies grace and a sensuous lustre, and the chubby Bacchus appears visibly at ease in the company of these charming, gentle creatures. A soft light models the curves of the female bodies; using broad, confident strokes the artist has outlined the vegetation and terrain in summary fashion yet with a feeling for atmospheric effect.