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Art and Images in Psychiatry |

The Triumph of Bacchus

James C. Harris, MD
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(1):8-9. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.185.
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Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez's (1599-1660) painting of Bacchus is his most popular mythological work. Its naming varies with the perspective of the viewer. Some emphasize the feast itself or view it as homage to the god who brought the gift of wine to humankind. Others focus on the merry inebriants and refer to it as Los Borrachos (The Drunkards). Yet these names provide no clue as to why Velázquez, the newly appointed royal portraitist, chose this particular mythological theme. Was it chosen because long ago Bacchus is said to have grown up in Spain and later to have conquered Spain and ruled there?3,4 Is it, in a sense, despite its mythological subject, a history painting, perhaps completed to prove Velázquez's range beyond portraiture to more senior court painters who may have been competitors?4 Unlike his royal portraits, its earthiness reinstates his earlier emphasis on realistic scenes of daily life before becoming, at age 29 years, the chief court painter to young King Philip IV of Spain, who was 6 years his junior. Perhaps the young king identified with Bacchus and wished to emphasize the ruler's historic role in offering benefits to the people. If so, wine proved to be a mixed blessing. In this painting, unlike the traditional rendering of myth, the ancient story is brought to life among contemporary people, Spanish peasants. For this, his first mythological painting, Velázquez received a hundred ducats in payment by royal decree in 1629.4

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Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), Spanish. The Triumph of Bacchus (The Drinkers), 1628-1629. Oil on canvas, 165 cm × 225 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain (http://www.museodelprado.es/en/education/resources/audioguias/el-triunfo-de-baco-o-los-borrachos). Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York, NY.

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William Hogarth (1697-1764), English. Gin Lane, 1751. Engraving. British Museum, London, Great Britain. © The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, New York, NY.

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