The short but brilliant career of the painter Johann Liss, a German transplant to Italy, is known from only a few surviving documents. The outlines of his life were sketched by his first biographer, Joachim von Sandrart (1606–1688), who noted that Liss hailed from the county of Oldenburg in the far north of Germany. This is corroborated by inscriptions on two drawings, in which Liss called himself Holsatian. He is believed to have gained artistic training in Amsterdam, Haarlem, and probably Antwerp before traveling to Paris and then Venice about 1620. Probably by about 1622 he was in Rome, where he joined the Schildersbent (painters’ clique), a society of mostly Dutch and Flemish painters with some German members. Although he is thought to have returned to Venice in the mid-1620s, his name appears in the registry of the confraternity of Venetian painters only in 1629, and around the same time he completed his great Inspiration of Saint Jerome for the church of San Nicolò da Tolentino there. Through his travels, Liss attained a synthesis of styles prevalent in the Low Countries, Venice, and Rome. His influence in Venice reached into the eighteenth century. He died in Verona in 1631, likely fleeing an outbreak of the plague (Klessmann 1999).
This painting by Liss shows a slumbering nymph in a dense forest, spied upon by a wandering shepherd, identifiable by his crook. Although the composition appears complete in its current state, it has in fact been cropped on the right side to about two-thirds of its original width. As Dorothy Limouze noted (in correspondence of 2004), a drawing by Aegidius Sadeler (1568–1629) in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, shows the identical composition except that it extends on the right to include another nymph seated on the banks of a stream and two goats beyond. In the painting, part of the second nymph is still discernable; the now indistinct area of lighter brown at the lower right edge corresponds exactly to her torso, thigh, and right calf as they appear in the Sadeler drawing. Technical examination confirmed that the canvas has indeed been cut down, probably no earlier than the eighteenth century (report by Charlotte Hale, February 2005). This intervention changed the balance of light and dark in the painting, since, as the drawing indicates, a significant portion of the excised section consisted of sky. It also altered the narrative content, for the stream formerly at the right made clear that the sleeping nymph had disrobed for bathing. Furthermore, the goats underscored the lasciviousness of the shepherd’s gaze, and the shepherd himself risked being discovered by the seated nymph busy washing her feet in the stream.
Although Klessmann (1999) maintained that the scene is from the tale of Cymon and Iphigenia in Boccaccio’s Decameron (V.1), the inconsistencies are significant enough to cast doubt on that identification, particularly when taking into account the lost section. Missing is the story’s fountain which is normally represented as a man-made structure, not the stream (or possible natural spring) in the former right third. Boccaccio also describes Iphigenia’s attendants as being asleep near her, and whereas depictions exist in which Iphigenia is unaccompanied (as it would appear in the present reduced state of this work), the lost section contained a distinctly awake female companion. The goats formerly at the right are likewise absent from Boccaccio’s tale. While it could be considered a free interpretation of the story, the subject is more likely a generic invention by the artist meant to appeal to the contemporary taste for pastoral themes.
The record of scholarship on the Nymph and Shepherd reaches back only to 1999, the year of its acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum. Given the paucity of biographical documentation and almost complete lack of dated works, the chronology of Liss’s oeuvre is highly speculative. Scholars generally agree, however, that most (perhaps all) of the surviving paintings were produced in Venice and Rome. Klessmann (1999), who affirmed the attribution of the MMA canvas to Liss, proposed a Roman origin and a date of about 1625. He pointed out the similarity of the present work to Liss’s Nymphs Bathing in the Städtische Kunstsammlungen, Augsburg, which he also dated in the mid-1620s. In the woodland setting, Klessmann detected the influence of Paul Bril (ca. 1554–1626), who was then active in Rome, and he considered the flesh modeling and soft light reminiscent of Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) and Correggio (active by 1514–died 1534).
This painting’s relationship to the Sadeler drawing in the Hermitage requires further scrutiny. The closely comparable painting by Liss in Augsburg, Nymphs Bathing, is also connected with a compositionally identical drawing by Sadeler, this one in the Louvre, Paris. In research that preceded the discovery of the New York Nymph and Shepherd, Limouze considered Liss’s Augsburg canvas to have been modeled on the Sadeler sheet in Paris, while Klessmann and others saw the opposite relationship and maintained that Sadeler made the drawing in preparation for an unrealized or lost engraving after the Augsburg painting (see Dorothy A. Limouze, "Aegidius Sadeler [c. 1570–1629]: Drawings, Prints and Art Theory," Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1990, pp. 310–12; and Klessmann 1999, pp. 73, 159–60). The subsequent emergence of a separate set of identical compositions—the Liss in New York and the Sadeler in St. Petersburg—tends to support the theory that the drawings were conceived for reproductive prints after the paintings, a specialty of Sadeler. The fact that the Augsburg and New York paintings are of the same dimensions and have a similar material history—each has been cut down by about a third on one side—suggests that they have a common provenance, which would also help to explain both having been copied by Sadeler. If this was the case, then perhaps the paintings were bought or commissioned from Liss by a collector with connections to the imperial court in Prague, where Sadeler was imperial engraver. The date of 1619 inscribed on the Sadeler drawing in the Hermitage, however, introduces a significant complication. If the date is correct and the drawings are indeed after the paintings (currently dated about 1625), this would require a reassessment of Liss’s development to explain his acquisition of Italianate stylistic traits before his presumed arrival in Italy around 1620.