Great works: Nymphs by a Fountain c.1650 by Peter Lely

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Peter Lely was one of those great Dutch painters who helped to define and create what we now blithely describe as British painting. Yes, British painting is a thoroughgoing European construct. We would be nowhere without its example. Much of it was also a courtly matter, painters imported from the Low Countries by, for example, the Caroline courts of the tumultuous 17th century (Anthony van Dyck painted for Charles I, raising him up on horseback in order to flatter his diminutive stature, and Lely was chief painter to Charles II) in order to aggrandise the monarchy and give an ennobling edge to its often rather dissolute hangers-on.

This is a great erotic painting that is partially pretending to be a classical scene of sorts – nymphs sleeping, all of a tumble, in a grove with classical architectural features, drinks spiked by Hypnos, god of sleep. In order to make them that much more vulnerable to predators? Quite so. In order for them to be absolutely still so that we can examine their exquisite perfections as minutely as possible? Quite so. How Charles II and his lewd entourage would have guffawed at this one!

It takes us by surprise. We expect it to be a painting in a tradition that usually idealised the naked body, set it at some distance from real human nakedness – something more akin to what Rubens or Poussin might have done. And it is – but only to a degree. In fact, it is a curious hybrid of a thing that uses the classical arcadian scene as a point of departure.

These are not idealised nymphs. They are living and breathing naked girls, painted for the onlooker's delectation, and rendered all the more vulnerable by the fact that they are sleeping – which means that we can steal upon them without their noticing or protesting. Their postures are strangely ill assorted; they don't quite work together. We cannot quite fathom how the nymphs at the back fit, why they seem so upright even as they sleep, where they have tucked their legs etc. The one sprawled backwards (across an outcrop of rock, that most uncomfortable of resting places), well, could she really lie like that, and would her breasts look quite so rounded if she were at that extraordinary angle? Probably not.

It scarcely matters though. It is all a bit of an erotic fantasy, and made all the more so by the fountain behind, which looks a little like a grey extension of those sleeping beings in the foreground, as if one group has emerged from the other or the one is related in some way to the other. And yet the one is animate and the other stone. In fact, the human is rawly human – in spite of its arcadian setting.

See how filthy are the feet of the young woman who lies sprawled full length, facing away from us, and how plump is the stomach of the young woman on the left. Hair is tangled, cheeks are pink and flushed. Fleshy plumpness is beautifully rendered. They lie amidst the disarray of their gorgeously mis-used fabrics, as if this were an intimate bedroom scene spirited to the woods. What draws the eye most of all is that lovely nourishing light spread so evenly across this golden expanse of naked flesh, which seems to rove around caressingly, like a curious bobby's torchlight.

They seem to be borne forwards towards us – or offered up to us – like a secretive gift, by this bower of enveloping woodland, which represents the fecundity of nature. A double fecundity then, and all chanced upon quite unexpectedly.

Unsurprisingly, Lely was a great success at the court of Charles II. Knighted in 1680, he ran a hugely productive studio and amassed great wealth. He clearly had his paint-stained index finger on the pulse of the times.

About the artist: Peter Lely (1618-80)

Peter Lely was born in Westphalia of Dutch parents (his father was a serving officer in the armies of the Elector of Brandenburg,) and he studied painting in Haarlem before moving to London in 1641, the year of Van Dyck's death. He remained there for the rest of his life, a canny survivor and pictorial chronicler of the great men of his times during years of massive political upheaval. He was appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary to Charles II in 1661 at a stipend of £200 per year.

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?