(b. 1590, Paris, d. 1649, Paris)
Parnassus or Apollo and the Musesc. 1640
Oil on panel, 88 x 222 cm
Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest
The painting was part of a series executed for decorations, the other panels (Urania and Calliope; Polyhimnia; Euterpe) are in French and German museums.
Apollo Musagetes, the leader of the Muses, fills his role in this painting as a "kitharodos" or a singer accompanied by a kithara. He is playing a finely-arched, six-stringed lyre with a very small sound-box, just like the one imagined since the early Renaissance to resemble the instrument of the classical gods. Apollo wears a laurel wreath and, surrounded by the nine Muses, is engrossed in playing his music on Parnassus. The Muses, according to the classical ideal of beauty, are full-figured females; their spiritual substance is expressed by their melancholic expressions. The painter emphasizes the fact that they are related, although each of them can be identified on the basis of small details.
There are a number of musical instruments among their attributes: for example, Polyhymnia sits in the right-hand group, facing the viewer, wearing a flowery wreath, holding a papyrus scroll, and resting her right hand on the reverse side of a lute, while in the left rear, embraced by Terpsichore, we can recognize Euterpe, holding a flute in her left hand. The symbols contain the duality of the exalted, laudatory poetry and the sensual, entertaining lyricism. The other Muses are from left to right: Erato, the "awakener of desire"; Melpomene, the "singer"; Thalia, the "ceremonial"; Calliope, the "fine-voiced"; on the right side, next to Polyhymnia, Urania, the "heavenly"; and Clio, the "glorifier". Of course the original meanings of the Greek names express only part of those qualities which have since been attached to the Muses, who know the secrets of the universe.
Simon Vouet's frieze-like painting, intended to be viewed from a low angle, was probably part of a decorative series of panels. Accordingly, its style is characterized by a calculated harmony of colours and forms. It is a fine example of the balanced, Classicist spirit of French Baroque painting.