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The Storied History of Francesco Caucig’s Amyntas Being Rewarded by the Dryad Saving the Oak

Today’s post comes from Bella Dalton-Fenkl, class of 2020 and Art Center Docent.

As we prepare for Amyntas Being Rewarded by the Dryad Saving the Oak by Francesco (or Franz) Caucig to be put into storage and for it to be replaced by The Octavian Gate and Fish Market by Hubert Robert, now is the perfect time to discuss the complex backstory of Amyntas Being Rewarded by the Dryad Saving the Oak. I first became familiar with this painting after Professor Brian Lukacher assigned a paper in Art and Revolution in Europe, 1789-1848 relating to it. After I completed this assignment, my interest in the painting grew, especially regarding its provenance, and I began to research it.

When the FLLAC initially acquired this oil painting, it had been attributed to Gottlieb Schick, the most famous German Neoclassical painter—and a favorite pupil of Jacques-Louis David. It was thought that this oil was a lost work that had been commissioned by Joachim I Napoleon. However, more information about Schick’s lost work was discovered, and in fact it does not even visually resemble Amyntas Being Rewarded by the Dryad.

After this discovery, we displayed Amyntas Being Rewarded by the Dryad Saving the Oak with no attribution ascribed to it. We simply had it labeled as Allegorical Figures in a Landscape. Eventually, the FLLAC was contacted by the National Gallery of Slovenia’s senior curator, Andrej Smrekar, who informed us that the painting is in fact by the most famous Slovenian Neoclassical painter, Francesco (or Franz) Caucig. Smrekar told us the work is an illustration of a parable from a Swiss work of literature called Idyllen, by Salomon Gessner.

The parable that inspired Caucig’s painting is focused on kindness and humility—Amyntas, a shepherd, one day noticed that the roots of an oak tree were eroding due to its proximity to a rushing stream. Amyntas built a makeshift wooden dam around the roots to prevent further destruction, and a dryad—a tree spirit—emerged from the oak and told him he deserved a reward for his good deed. Amyntas humbly refused a reward for himself and instead asked that she cure the illness of his neighbor, Palemon. The dryad granted his wish while also making Amyntas’s flock twice as bountiful.
Caucig’s painting depicts the dryad and Amyntas standing near the oak tree he saved at what appears to be golden hour (the foliage and clouds are tinged with a bright gold). This choice of time gives the painting a mystical quality, appropriate for the subject. The tree’s trunk has a shallow S-shaped curve, and this same shape is mirrored by the dryad’s left arm and the shepherd’s right. These shared curves indicate the connection between the figures and the tree, and by extension, the landscape. Amyntas is holding a spade, and in front of him lies a hatchet—these two items being the tools he used to construct the dam. In this painting, a human uses man-made tools to repurpose wood (which is made from trees) in order to save another tree. This detail further blurs the line between human and nature.

The Akademie der Bildenden Kunste in Vienna holds the preparatory drawing for Caucig’s Amyntas Being Rewarded by the Dryad Saving the Oak. Smrekar explained that while the provenance is not known, the studies for the work were done around 1809, at the same time Caucig was commissioned by the Auersperg family in Vienna to create a dozen paintings. During this period, Caucig’s homeland of Gorizia (which was at the time part of Slovenia), located at the foot of the Julian Alps, was forcibly incorporated into the Kingdom of Illyria by Napoleon Bonaparte. Because the Auersperg family was an enemy of Napoleon, there could be a message of protest in this work.  Perhaps it highlights the artist’s desire for the metaphorical roots of his homeland to be protected. Further evidence for this reading is found in the sky, which is painted with soft, royal colors.

Although questions remain about who commissioned the work and the precise date it was painted, Amyntas Being Rewarded by the Dryad Saving the Oak remains a beautiful painting in the Neoclassical style that displays masterful use of color, composition, and symbolism, and what we do know can showcase how attributions may change over time.

Franz Caucig, Amyntas Rewarded by the Dryad Saving the Oak, c. 1809
Oil on canvas;
Purchase, Suzette Morton Davidson, class of 1934, Fund and Francis Woolsey and Helen Silkman Bronson, class of 1924, Fund.
Franz Caucig, Amyntas, a Dryad and a Saved Oak, before 1810,
Graphite, pen drawing in brown, grey washes;
Vienna, Kupferstichkabinett der Akademie der bildenden Künste, inv. no. 1689. Reproduced in Ksenija Rozman and Marja Lorenčak, eds., Franc Kavčič/Caucig: Paintings for Palais Auersperg in Vienna (Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia, 2007–2008), 114.

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