William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Youth of Bacchus, 1884

This impressive 20×11’ painting has been making news in recent weeks because it’s going up for auction at Sotheby’s NY in May. Prior to its recent transport, the painting had only left Bouguereau’s atelier three times since its completion in 1884; the first for the 1885 Salon, the second for the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889, and the third time for a travelling retrospective in North America in 1984-85.
The scene shows a bacchanal, that is, a celebration of Bacchus, the god of wine. Cults of Bacchus formed in ancient Rome; it’s well-known that bacchanalia involved excessive consumption of wine, uninhibited revelry, and orgies where, according to Livy, some ‘participants’ were not willing. The cult of Bacchus was outlawed in the late 2nd Century. Despite the painting’s title about the god’s youth, Bouguereau gives us Bacchus as a middle-aged, pot-bellied drunkard on an ass, being steadied by satyrs in the middleground, while the young and beautiful play music and dance in the sunlit foreground. Is Bouguereau saying that we should take better care of ourselves by living a life of moderation? Or is he saying YOLO?

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