This expressive painting is the mythological representation of Diana and Actaion, created by a painter of the Fontainebleau school around 1570/80. The medium is oil on oak panel and the dimensions are 77 x 103 cm. The group of artists worked at Fontainebleau Castle south of Paris – the favorite residence of the French King Francis I (1494-1547) -from the 16. until the beginning of 17th century in the style of Mannerism and focused mainly on pictorial themes of Greco-Roman mythology. The so-called First School of Fontainebleau (1530-70) was formed by Italian artists whom Francis I invited to decorate the chateau. Under Henry IV (1553-1610) the castle was restored, this time Flemish and French artists executed those works that are considered to be of the Second School of Fontainebleau (1590-1620).
According to Ovid, after the hunt the hero Aktaion surprises the goddess Diana with the nymphs while bathing at a grotto in the forest. Incensed that a mortal has seen her unclothed, Diana transforms him into a stag, who is soon mauled by his own hunting dogs. In this painting the moment of the encounter is shown: The imposing-looking Aktaion, armed as a Roman general with spear and sword, surrounded by three hunting dogs, looks at Diana, who, however, has turned to one of the three nymphs. The latter jump up in fright and look up at the intruder. Diana sits on a red cloth next to a fountain-like structure; the bronze sculpture of a bearded river god emphasizes that the scene takes place by a spring. The nymphs appear in turmoil; one points accusingly at the hero and another turns to Aktaion gesturing, while the third backs away, grabs a green cloth and appears to rest on a vase. The goddess herself, however, wears an almost self-satisfied smile, because the outcome of the story can already be seen in the background: The transformed Aktaion, in armor but with a stag’s head, has fallen and is being circled by his dogs. This allusion presupposes the viewer’s knowledge of the myth; such refined details are typically employed in works of the Fontainebleau school.
Pictorial themes integrating nudes and erotic scenes were particularly popular with the artists of the Fontainebleau School, such as the “Allegory of the Birth of a Prince of France” c. 1550/70 (Bildergalerie Sanssouci Potsdam GK I 5040). Special features also include the detailed inclusion of sculptural ornamentation, such as the fountain, and the condensed groups of figures around the main figure, Diana. The female figures also wear characteristically upswept, braided hairstyles with tiaras. In addition, the manneristic elongation of the figures emphasizes the drama of the scene, while the strong contours of the sharply modeled bodies and the cool color effect skillfully distance the viewer from the mythological action. The strongly elaborated musculature of the female figures is comparable to René Boyvin’s depiction of nymphs (MET 32.105). A version as an oil painting from the third quarter of the 16th century is also known and related to this painting in the modeling of the female bodies (MET 42.150.12). The depiction of Actaion also recalls the portrait of Henry IV as Mars (Château de Pau) by Jacob Brunel from the second school of Fontainebleau. A similar vase as an ornamental element in connection with a nude figure can be seen in the painting by Jean Cousin the Elder, titled “Eva Prima Pandora” (Louvre RF 2373).
The theme of Diana is already represented in works of the first school of Fontainebleau around 1525/1550 (Louvre RF 1952 28) and around 1540/60 (Louvre INV 445). Likewise, another representation of Diana’s bath, painted by François Clouet in the third quarter of the 16th century, is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen (1846.1). Most related, however, is the composition and execution of a painting of Diana Bathing, c. 1560/1600 (Louvre 1941 9), which follows the Flemish painter Frans Floris (c. 1516-1570) and his school: Diana is shown equally calm with her hand outstretched, while the three nymphs in the foreground gesture or attempt to cover themselves. Aktaion approaches with similarly waving red cloak; however, with rather defensive gesture than in surprise-offensive manner as in the picture here. Equally similar is the contoured-accentuated modeling of the bodies, the physiognomy and headdress of the women, and the overriding cool coloration. Therefore, this painting can be classified in the tradition of the Second School of Fontainebleau. It appears more lively and dynamic than the copy in the Louvre, not least because of the more active movements and gestures of the figures, which result in an increased immediacy of the scene.