Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 54 x 81 cm
Signed: and dated lower left: P. Valenciennes
Private Collection, Stockholm.
Paris, Salon, 1791, no. 7 (livret no. 132, ‘Vue de la Grèce, avec des jeunes filles qui sacrificent leurs cheveux à Diane au bord d’un fleuve’).
With his reputation as the master of the paysage historique firmly established and his studio popular with younger artists, Valenciennes was at the height of his powers when he painted this work, one of seven shown at the 1791 Salon. It was hung as the pendant to A Landscape, View of Italy with Bathers (whereabouts unknown), listed separately (no. 11) but exhibited under the same number in the Academy livret. Two larger works, each measuring (28 ½ x 39 ½ inches. 72 x 100 cm) were also exhibited, along with a small Italian view and two views of the surroundings of Rome.
The foreground of our painting is dominated by a small lake at the base of a marble statue of Diana with her bow and a small stag, standing beneath a leafy arbor. On the far side of the lake can be seen a circular altar, resembling the base of a great column, on which two young women have placed their severed hair while a third can be seen in the act of cutting her locks. Behind them two small female figures stand in an open sunlit plain, gesturing towards a shaded stream where three more women are drying their washing on a stone plinth. Immediately beyond, the artist has placed a shadowed city wall, dominated by a circular fort (based, no doubt, on the Roman Castel Sant’ Angelo), dividing the composition into two distinct sections. Above the wall a sharply rising range of barren hills extends from the left into the distance, on the summit can be seen a building resembling the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, which also appears in several other compositions by the artist. Behind the city walls, splendid buildings and a distant temple extend across the plain beyond. Unlike most of Valenciennes’s compositions that are either lit frontally or from the side, the artist seems to be experimenting here with light effects. The landscape is illuminated from an acute angle to the rear, so that much of the fore and middle-ground appears in shadow or silhouetted in a contre lumière effect.
The Roman goddess Diana, or Greek Artemis, was not only the patroness of hunters but had dedicated herself to perpetual chastity. Her attendants foreswore relations with the opposite sex but, nonetheless, mythology records several instances when they succumbed willingly or unwillingly to male lust. Diana subjects were particularly popular with rococo painters, giving them an opportunity to display the female nude in languorous poses. While long hair, or the combing or wringing out of long locks was traditionally a symbol of fertility, Valenciennes, however, conscious of the increasing disapproval of lascivious scenes in the Paris of the Revolution, has chosen the moment when Diana’s handmaidens make the decision to dedicate their lives to her service. This idea would have had greater appeal at a time when privileges were being surrendered or abolished and France’s young men were going off to war. For the ancients, hair, and the way it was worn, marked class and status. Young girls and unmarried women wore their hair long and loose but upon marriage it was coiled upon their heads; prostitutes and women of easy morals coifed their hair in elaborate ringlets and curls. The girls’ short hair now identified them as virgins dedicated to perpetual chastity in the image of Diana, with a consequential curtailment of fertility.
 Paysage représentant une vue de Colonne, le Temple des Euménides sur le mont Cythéron et Oedipe et sa fille Antigone, implorant les Coloniates qui veulent le chasser de ce lieu sacré (no 38, 130 of the livret); and Paysage dans lequel on voit Ulisse, implorant l’assistance de Nausicca, fille d’Alcinoüs (no 42, 131 of the livret).