I bet a lot of people don’t realise that Poussin’s recently stolen King Midas at the Pactolus, from the Fesch collection in Corsica, has been in the hands of thieves before. I don’t mean in modern times, but in Poussin’s own century.I suddenly recalled that Poussin’s merchant friend Stefan Roccatagliata mentions this painting during a deposition in the trial of the diamond smuggler Fabrizio Valguarnera; according to the testimony, the crook bought the painting with one stolen diamond from Roccatagliata’s stock in 1631. Although he had had to give evidence also, Poussin was completely innocent, oblivious to the nefarious schemes of this Spanish nobleman who sought to buy and commission original paintings, or have copies made, with his illicit proceeds.
One of these copies is known to have been made of another version of the Midas subject, Midas and Bacchus, at Munich, probably made about 1629, about three years after the Fesch picture. This is perhaps the most well-known. It shows a statuesque Bacchus- based on sculpture that Poussin had studied and drawn in Rome at that time- absolving the foolish Midas of his wish that everything he touched should turn to gold. The god languidly stretches out a hand to indicate that Midas should bathe in the River Pactolus, if his curse of instant riches is to vanish. The other figures in the foreground, putti, Silenus, nymph and goat look like the remnants of a sleepover party or Bacchic hangover, a contrast to the stern controlled Bacchus.
The river Pactolus is represented by a reclining figure holding an urn, set far back into the picture. This is what the late Louis Marin, one of the most perceptive of Poussin scholars, would have called a “mini-picture.” It’s a miniature scene in which a later episode is acted out: the cleansing of Midas’s curse by the Pactolus which pours water over the naked king. In order to draw our eye to it, Poussin creates a Venetian-style aperture through which we look to Midas's salvation, the waters of the Pactolus- almost certainly Christian baptism implied here. It’s almost like looking into the future at something that was ordained.
In the Fesch version, King Midas contemplates a man looking for gold in the Pactolus, but the monarch has learnt that this is fool’s gold; riches don’t always bring happiness, just the opposite. I wonder if Valguarnera in his dark, Roman dungeon cast his mind back to the subject matter of the pictures he had owned. Reflecting bitterly, he may have realized that he could have abandoned riches and misery like Midas, but by then it was too late. As the dust accumulated on Poussin’s Midas canvases, and the clock ticked away Valguernera’s trial proceedings, the life force ebbed from the thief’s body. The 17th century criminal died in prison.
As for our 21st century felons contemplating the Fesch Midas, I wouldn’t like to think what’s going through their minds. According to Didier Rykner of Art Tribune, the thieves might consider destroying their haul as they can’t sell it. I hope they take DR’s advice that they would face more lenient treatment if they returned the art safe and sound.