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Nymphs by a Fountain

Nymphs at a Fountain is a rare example of Lely's early explorations in narrative painting, executed in the years following his arrival in England before he began to focus his career almost exclusively on portraiture. The idyllic pastoral setting, the large format and the rich, shimmering colours attest to Lely's recent exposure to the work of 16th-century Venetian artists such as Titian and Giorgione in the collection of Charles I, which was sold at public auction in 1649. Although the individually sketched figures remain somewhat awkwardly assembled across the canvas, the young artist’s newfound confidence in depicting the female nude, visible here in the softness of the rounded forms against the shining crispness of the satin, was a direct result of Lely drawing from the live model in his studio.

By alluding to the great narratives of the Bible and Classical mythology, Lely here declares his intention to emulate the exceptional career of his recent predecessor in London, Anthony Van Dyck. Indeed, the recumbent pose of the nymph in the left foreground is adapted from Van Dyck's Cupid & Psyche, now in the Royal Collection, London, which Lely himself owned between c.1654 and 1660. Rather than depicting a particular story, however, Nymphs by a Fountain presents a more generalised vision of Arcadian pleasure and female beauty, a scene which carries erotic overtones as the viewer is invited to gaze voyeuristically upon the sleeping nymphs. Such a theme serves as a marked contrast to the contemporary turmoil of the English Civil War (1642–1651) and its aftermath, a fact which, along with the unusual dimensions, would suggest that this painting was specifically commissioned for the home of a private patron rather than for the open market.