An intriguing oil sketch for an ‘enigma’, ordered by the Jesuits and attributed to Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), Supplice ordonnée de Mézence (Torture commanded by Mezentius) painted circa 1646/7, oil on canvas, size 54 x 43.5 cm., sold in Paris as Entourage de Charles le Brun, Le martyre de saint Gervais et saint Protais. (Mezentius is a figure from Etruscan myth described by Virgil as an extremely cruel king who condemned his victims to death by tying them to a corpse).
Everything in our painting shows his quality, in the articulation of the figures and their three-dimensionality, the logic of their interactions and the balance of volumes and color. This painting is in fact described as lost and illustrated in Bénédicte Gady, L’ascension de Charles Le Brun, 2011, pages 221, 224 and 225, with three ‘preparatory’ drawings which are illustrated in Lydia Beauvais, Charles Le Brun, Inventaire général des dessins école française au Louvre , 2000, Vol. 2, no. 2838, page 814 (see below), no.2828, page 812 and no. 2826, page 812, all mentioned as dating from the first years of the 1650’s.
The final painting for which our sketch is a model was described in detail by Claude Nivelon, the pupil and admirer of Le Brun in his Vie de Charles Le Brun et déscription détaillée de ses ouvrages (The life of Charles Le Brun and a detailed description of his works) from 1689, edited by Lorenzo Pericolo in 2004, pages 127-131. The enigmatic and symbolic depiction of the mythological cruel Etruscan king, seated on a high dais to the right and directing the execution for the atrocious fate of the condemned man, who begs for the intervention of the Roman flamen priest standing with his back to the viewer is accentuated by the presence to the right foreground of two small royal children, the very young Louis XIV, king since the death of his father Louis XIII in 1640 and his brother Philippe d’Orleans holding a document which is probably meant to be a lettre de cachet (see below) and both sitting in the final version on a sack of gold coins surrounded by the symbols of royal power, weapons, jewels and what was called Spanish wax, used for sealing official documents.
The soldier, priest and executioner represent the social classes in seventeenth century France. The presence of the two very young royals at respectively age nine and seven, expressed the hope for a better judicial system in the coming new regime. It is indeed very rare to find a social comment like this one from the hand of the young and already celebrated artist Charles Le Brun, who later in his career concentrated in depicting the symbols and majesty of the establishment (with maybe some hidden exceptions like the curious small bronze of a Lion devouring his Prey at the upper right of the impressive Jabach family portrait recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum).
What intrigued Nivelon despite his not understanding the symbolic meaning of this painting was that Charles Le Brun had a taste for what were called ‘enigmas’, painted moral riddles to be solved by the pupils of the Jesuits in their school Collège de Clermont which still exists as Lycée Louis-le Grand in the rue Saint Jacques in Paris. It was thought that these enigmas would be instructional and in this case the solution was ”cachet” (seal) because the impression from a corpse would cause a reaction, the death of the man tied to it. There was more to this riddle because the Jesuits were in the person of the then chancellor Séguier closely involved with the Lettres de cachet signed by the king, which condemned people to imprisonment in the Bastille fortress.
Jennifer Montague has described in her article “Painted enigma and French seventeenth century art” (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 31, 1968, pages 307-335), the function and appearance of these ‘enigmas’ and the final version of the painting on pages 318 and 319. The differences between this oil sketch and the more refined ‘preparatory’ drawings as Gady mentions them, makes it impossible that it would be a copy after Le Brun. Then this oil sketch would reflect those drawings which it does not. The logical and the most probable explanation is that our oil sketch is a première pensée, a quick lying down of Le Brun’s thoughts for this composition, as Sylvain Kerspern has convincingly argued in Une “enigme” sort de l’ombre (an “enigma” emerges from the shadows) on his website http://www.dhistoire-et-dart.com/approche/LeBrun-Mezence.html.
That this oil sketch misses the three-dimensional richness that one finds in most of Le Brun’s finished works and oil sketches points all the more to the fact that our work is simply a superb aide-memoire for the painter in how he wanted to present his composition. The more worked-out drawings were then produced afterwards for the final version, a tactic often used by Le Brun as well as other artists. The date for Le Brun’s enigma of Supplice de Mézence is said by Nivelon to be just after his return to Paris circa 1646/7, like the fine also by the Metropolitan Museum in New York newly acquired “Polyxena” (symbolic for Innocense to be Sacrificed for political expediency), which shares with our painting the curious composition from right to left as a converging arrow pointing in our case to the corpse, in the Polyxena to the funerary urn of Achilles.
In fact Christie’s in Paris who sold the “Polyxena” as lot 36 on 15 April, 2013, mentions in their catalogue description by Dr. Olivier Lefeuvre our sketch (still as a copy), quote: ”During these years, Le Brun also painted The Torture of Mezence, King of Etruria, for the College of the Jesuits in rue Saint-Jacques in Paris. This lost painting is now only known through an old copy and three preparatory drawings in the Louvre (B. Gady, L’Ascension de Charles Le Brun. Liens sociaux et production artistique, 2011, fig. 130, p. 224). The Sacrifice of Polyxena compares closely with that painting and shares the same vertical format and dimensions (the size of the Torture is not known but Nivelon tells us that the figures are ‘life-size’) and the same sense of rigorous construction and legibility inherited from Poussin”.
It may well be that our oil sketch is the one mentioned in a sale of his collection of paintings, drawings and etchings by Pierre Louis Honoré Corvisart, lawyer at parliament to his colleague Jean-Baptiste Benissein recorded on January 6, 1785, which contained works by Desportes, Le Nain, Deshays etc. and in which our oil sketch is mentioned as ” une esquisse de le Brun ayant pour suject ‘Le Supplice de Mezence’ (a sketch by le Brun, having as subject ‘The cruelty of Mezence’)”. (Patrick Michel, “Le Commerce du tableau à Paris dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle “, Presses Universitaires 2007, page 198)
A recent fortuitous discovery is a charming and impetuously painted oil sketch portrait on its original canvas (size 48 x 38 cms) of a Young Boy, by François-Joseph Navez (1787-1869). “Though it appears as almost too clever for Navez” (quote from a French scholar). Dr. Denis Coekelberghs, the co-author of the definitive exhibition catalogue on Navez from 1999/2000, compares it closely in technique to the oil sketch portrait of his ailing son, Auguste Navez dated 1846 (cf Coekelberghs page 146, color illustration 262).
However there can be no doubt that this is a portrait of a very young Leon-Pierre Suys (1823-1887), circa 1829/30 and probably at six years old. Unlike the above more worked-out portraits of Mademoiselle Luisa and the one of Léon-Pierre Suys, looking shyly up through his eyelashes, the very free energetic brushwork in this work is remarkably rare with Navez and a continuation of such dexterity as seen in Jacques-Louis David’s portraits, Navez’s master. In fact Navez inherited the manner of scumbling from David as clearly seen in the latter’s portrait of Madame Trudaine from 1792.
It is as if the brush is handled like a charcoal pencil quickly sketching the hair, ear, background and dress, while as is usual for Navez, the skin of the child’s face is carefully composed of thin layers of white, pink and gray glazing. It is quite amazing how the painter succeeds in catching the delicate features and childish innocence of the boy depicted in this portrait. Dr. Coekelberghs very sagely points out that one has to be a thorough student of Navez’s work to fully understand this remarkable oil sketch. As a realist painter of children Navez hardly has a competitor and all his sitters have a serious demeanor as if they are aware of the importance of being ‘eternalized’ in paint.
This portrait was probably never intended to be created for a final product but to have served as a fully autograph premiere pensee and as aide-memoire for the artist himself and an immediate quick observation of the child who is caught in between his play, casually seated down for the painter while he is looking sideways for an escape. In fact this feature of a side-ways glance is fairly typical for the artist as also seen in the beautiful ‘Musicians’, presently in the Clarke Institute in Williamstown, Mass. The image by laying down an impression of the moment is characteristic for an artist who has reached secure maturity in the handling of his brush. The spontaneity is surprising and enchanting, while the brilliant but controlled brushwork precedes the later efforts of the Impressionist painters to reflect with the medium of paint and movement of their brush an instant impression of their physical environment.
This very appealing and lightly brushed Allegory of The Three Sister Arts, Sculpture, Painting and Architecture by the Italian neo-classical sculptor, painter and architect Antonio Canova (1775-1825), oil on canvas, size 74.5 x 61 cm. was fully authenticated and extensively described in an article ‘The Sister Arts, a pictorial Allegory’ published in 1991 by the eminent Italian art historian and Canova expert Dr. Gian Lorenzo Mellini (1935-2002), formerly at the University of Turin. The article was reproduced as a chapter in Mellini’s book ‘Canova: saggi di filologia e di ermeneutica ’ (Canova, essays on philology and hermeneutics), Milan, 1999, p. 87/89 with a color illustration on page 29 and a black and white illustration on page 213. Prof. Mellini makes a close comparison of our painting with that of “Alexander offering Campaspe to the painter Apelles”, illustrated in his book in color on page 91 and on page 209 in black and white and he describes it in an article from 1988 and in this book in a chapter called: ‘Canova, painter between antiquity and modernity’ (pages 72-78) with a mention of our closely comparable “Allegory of the Arts” on page 84. A heavenly cherub, disguised as Amor descends on a cloud to present to each of the Arts a golden laurel crown, though the more sumptuously clad and adorned Painting is favored, standing between Sculpture and Architecture. Dr. Mellini mentions the extinguished torch of Amor on the grass as indicating that any erotic intrusions are not relevant in honoring the Three Arts. The composition refers of course to the celebrated sculpture of the Three Muses by Canova, though here the composition opens up frontally to the viewer and is interrupted by the winged cherub. In fact it seems that the pastorales by Goya formed an inspiration for this work. Dr. Mellini points out that the hairstyles of the three female figures are from the Restoration period after Napoleon, thus the painting’s date is probably post-1815. They are depicted on the banks of a wide river with on the other side a long row of poplars which points to a Northern Italian setting of probably the river Brenta and the city of Bassano del Grappa with the Asolani hills in the distance. Canova’s birthplace the small town of Possagno in the Veneto became the focus of Canova’s architectural works with his Temple wherein his tomb is located, while the nearby town of Bassano became the locus of the Canova museum. In it is kept a 1806 composition of the “The Dance of the Three Graces with an Amor” (mixed media, 65.5 x 60.6 cm.), which shows Canova’s cathexis of depicting Amor (love) with the three female Graces or rather here with the three feminized Arts. This is enforced by the drawings Canova made and which are kept in the Canova Museum in Bassano. The figure of Painting leans on Sculpture which translated into the language of the painting means that she may be influenced by Sculpture’s forms but she remains well apart from Sculpture, a typical trait of Canova’s independent pictorial designs which Dr. Mellini extensively discusses in this chapter. The coils of her diaphanous veil blown in the wind above and beyond are directly related to the veil floating in the wind above a seated Muse in a drawing kept at Bassano and even reminiscent of the agitated robes of the figure of Eternity in the Deposition in Possagno. Painting caresses Amor with her left hand in a touching gesture as if especially thankful for the honor of the golden laurel crown he has first extended to her. Prof. Giuseppe Pavanello, a specialist on Antonio Canova tentatively proposed an attribution to the minor (and non-neoclassical) Venetian artist Giuseppe Martino de Boni (1753-1817), a close artist friend of Canova, who made engravings after Canova’s designs. However as Prof. Pavanello has more or less admitted in an email on January 20, 2017 that will be hard to maintain as the quality of De Boni’s work is so far below that of Canova himself (Il Tempio del Vero Gusto, Salerno/Ravello, 26/7 June 1997, Florence 2001- Rapporti tra Venezia e Roma in eta neoclassica, pages 254/5, note 37).
An extremely rare and very fine quality work by the late Mannerist painter Jacques de Bellange (Nancy circa 1575 – circa 1616 Nancy) of The Penitent Mary Magdalene, oil on oak panel, size 39 x 29 cm. The attribution is fully supported by Dr. Christopher Duran Comer who published and illustrated the painting as number 36 in his extensively researched 2013 catalogue raisonne of Bellange’s works in PDF format. The delicacy of the superbly rendered details and the fine delineation of the figure and objects point directly to a craftsman who was also a superb engraver, for which Bellange is mainly known. Dr. Sylvain Kerspern wrote: J’ai toujours pensé que le lien avec Bellange était indéniable (I have always thought the link to Bellange was undeniable), but Le métier semble d’une souplesse que je ne retrouve pas vraiment dans les dessins ou les gravures, plus nerveux (The manner seems of a suppleness that I do not find really in the more nervous drawings or engravings) and thus by comparing it to a drawing of ‘Saint Augustin’ in the Bibliotheque nationale de France and to the painting of ‘Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata’ in Nancy which relates to that drawing would place our painting fairly early in Bellange’s career. Bellange mainly known through his incomparable drawings and engravings left us with only one or two paintings which have been attributed to him, namely a large and beautiful canvas of ‘Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata’ in Nancy and an ‘Angel Gabriel’ on panel in Karslruhe, an attribution that has been doubted by Jacques Thuiller (Jacques Thuiller, “Jacques de Bellange”, 2001, no. RP4, page 307, illus.) and which is an image with its rather adipose hands that seems to have far more in common with the style of another Northern Mannerist artist, Bartholomaeus Spranger (cf. Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann,”School of Prague”, 1986, ‘Diana’ in the Budapest Museum, # 2072, pages 272/3, illus.). However Dr. Comer accepts it as fully autograph together with its pendant in a slightly different style of ‘The Virgin Mary’. Our painting is softer in manner and already predicting the flowing dramatic lines of the restless movement of the Baroque. Bellange is an elusive painter who nevertheless displays his manner in his graphic work, which shows a superbly idiosyncratic artist with a very distinctive style. His often elongated figures fill the page like a chimaera with their extraordinary appearance, voluminous waving garments and slender hands. The resemblances of Bellange’s female figures to the Magdalene in our painting are striking and can be easily enumerated. First of all the turned up face of the Saint is reflected in many of such faces in his works, blowsy and with a narrow cleft chin, small pursed mouth, a short nez retrousse and very expressive eyes, here with heavy under-eye swellings from crying. One observes the resemblance for example to the turned up face of a ‘Female Saint with a Lance’ in a little-known drawing in Rennes (Thuillier, “Bellange”, no. 75, pages 286/7, illus. in color). And maybe more so in the face of the Virgin in a superb engraving by Bellange of the ‘Annunciation’ in the Louvre (Worthen and Reed, “The Etchings of Jacques Bellange”, exhibition catalogue Metropolitan Museum, New York 1976, no. 42, pages 66/67, illus. ). However in character our painting appears to be rather closer to the wonderful series of women gardeners , drawn in brown pencil and heightened by a blue wash, presently held in the Louvre. The delight in depicting the sheer diaphanous drapery of the Saint’s garments slightly blown to the right is displayed often in Bellange’s drawings and engravings, where the movement of these dramatize the image and they have become a trademark of the artist. There is also the notable likeness of the figure of the Magdalene in our painting to the double-sided drawing of Une Bohémienne avec deux enfants in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg (Jacques Thuillier et alia, “L’art en Lorraine au temps de Jacques Callot”, Nancy 1992, nos. 81a and 81b, pages 264/265, illus.). The finely drawn and usually slender hands with spidery fingers so typical of the Lorraine School of painters are directly reflected in several works with typically the middle finger making a cross with the fourth one, the right hand clasping a breast, the left hand held lower to support drapery or here holding a crucifix. These gestures are most closely seen in the drawing of ‘Saint Roch’ kept at the Uffizi in Florence (Thuillier, “Bellange”, no. 32, pages 184/5, illus. in color). One also notices there the characteristic twist of the body that resembles that of the Magdalene in our painting. What differs in our painting are the heavy breasts of the Saint, because almost all of Bellange’s female figures have typically high placed small breasts above narrow waists. But then Mary Magdalene is emblematic of a sensual femininity, lacking in images of the Virgin but entirely logical here. Thuillier lists under Les oeuvres disparus (Thuillier, “Bellange”, page 301) two lost paintings of Mary Magdalene dating from 1603 and 1604, a subject matter of which he writes that there were several examples by Bellange. Both of these were painted for the duke of Lorraine, one a large canvas, the other of a different format dating from 1604. Dr. Comer compares the dating of our painting to the drawing of a ‘Female Saint with a Lance’ in Rennes, mentioned above which as he writes: “is quite loose and elegant and brushy and the physiognomical type is remarkably similar (to our painting) , particularly in the structure of the eye” and mentions the technique of scumbling (softening color or outline by a semi-opaque glaze), combined with a paint-loaded brush (representing dry and wet techniques) as typical of the artist’s experimental mindset. He places that drawing because of its blue wash slightly earlier but close to the group of drawings of ‘Gardeners’ of about 1613. Because so little was known as yet about Bellange’s paintings, Pierre Rosenberg who attributed the Karlsruhe painting to Bellange, did not rule out an attribution to Georges Lallemand, another early seventeenth century Lorraine painter (1595-1665), an idea which also seemed possible to Keith Christiansen. Dr. Paola Bassani Pacht however, who is studying Georges Lallemand in depth at present finds that “la Maddalena non e di Lallemand, secondo me, e giusto invece darla a Bellange. Lallemand e meno ambiguo, perverso, la sua fattura e piu decisa, dura…” (the Magdalene is according to me not by Lallemand, and instead correctly to be given to Bellange. Lallemand is less ambiguous, perverse, his manner is more decisive, harder). Christopher Wright writes in a letter dated April 8, 2014: “From the image the attribution seems obvious and that it is interesting to note what Paola Bassani Pacht had to say – after all such pictures were to be influential on Vignon in his later years back in France. It is also interesting that the work is small in scale – not so very different from the scale of the etching by Bellange of the Annunciation where the figure is so similar ! As for the possible dating – all dating of things in this period is tricky as there are so few fixed paintings to reference but as the etching is dated circa 1613 by the etching experts this picture would then come from approximately the same date”. To recoup, this would be borne out by the fact that the painting appears to be very close to the Female Saint with a Lance in Rennes (catalogue number 75 in Thuillier and mentioned above), which Thuillier relates to a superb Diana and Orion in the Morgan Library as well as to a Diana Hunting in Darmstadt, Germany , all of which he places sagely late in Bellange’s career, circa 1613-1616. That would also explain the less nervous movement of the lines in our painting as mentioned by Kerspern and the remarkable rhythm of its composition as well as “the light sliding over the gleaming pleats of her robe” (Thuillier re: the Rennes drawing), thus making the argument for these drawings as strongly supporting the attribution and dating of our painting.
A serious chronology of Bellange’s work has never been attempted not even by Thuillier. But it is obvious that there is a great difference between the nocturnal Deposition in the Hermitage attributed to Bellange and his later baroque eccentric drawings and etchings, all datable to between 1613 and 1616. The Deposition partakes of the Lorraine stylistic influence while the later graphic work appears to be more Italian in manner. The earliest appearance of Bellange dates to 1595 when he accepts a pupil, but then there is a hiatus till 1602 when he is mentioned as being at the court of Lorraine. It is then that one could place his beautiful Saint Francis receiving the Stigmata in Rennes, which strongly has departed from the nocturnal images and already displays an Italian flavor in the way the Angels are depicted. There is a Mannerist feeling about it which reverts to sixteenth century Florentine examples and in particular to the brilliantly twisted bodies of a painter like Pontormo, and different than what one would expect from a French painter like Bellange following the Fontainebleau examples of Rosso and Primaticcio. In fact, if one compares the voluminous billowing dresses with the elongated bodies and expressive small heads of the recently cleaned superb Pontormo altarpiece of Saints Mary and Elizabeth in Carmignano with the figures in Bellange’s drawings and his etchings, there seems to be no doubt but that our painter saw the Italian examples on a voyage to Italy, possibly between 1595 and 1602. Our painting, datable to about 1613 partakes of this Italianate Mannerist flavor, though it already shows the traces of the baroque. The eccentric nature of Bellange’s later work is directly explainable by his personal acquaintance with Florentine Mannerism.
A remarkable and flattering homage ȧ sa mère, possibly an early Portrait of Madame Ducreux, née Anne Béliard, the artist’s mother, circa 1760, oil on canvas, size 61.5 x 53 cm. by the clever French pastelliste and portrait painter Joseph Baron Ducreux (Nancy 1735-1802 Paris). Portraits of her by her son at a much later age are in the Carnavalet Museum of the City of Paris in oils and maybe at a very advanced age in pastel in the Louvre as well as for certain in pastel in the Stockholm museum. But the high forehead, pointedly arched eyebrows, the brown eyes, a small knob-like retroussé nose, the broad chin and the cupid-bow mouth are all present. It seems that Ducreux liked to paint his mother as his model in several periods of her life. Ducreux is mainly known for his witty and almost caricatural images of himself and closely observed other sitters and it seems almost that Ducreux is a forerunner of his contemporary, the German expressionist sculptor Messerschmidt. In these portraits, he succeeds in showing the character of the person depicted who in reverse keenly observes the painter, a concentrated reflected-back very aware glance seldom known till then in French portraiture. Ducreux also painted the portraits of Benjamin Franklin and the writer Choderlos de Laclos of Les liaisons dangereuses, Robespierre, Louis XVI in the Temple and the unhappy young Louis XVII during the French Revolution Aside from the highly accomplished technique learnt from Maurice Quentin de la Tour whose only pupil he was, the portrait shows in its superb brushwork Ducreux’s interest in oils, learnt from his colleague the painter Joseph Vien. The definitive attribution comes from a gracious suggestion by Neil Jeffares, author of the informational very extensive Dictionaire des pastellistes avant 1800, published in 2006, generously available on the Internet. This attribution is also fully supported by the pastel portrait of another woman, also probably from the Ducreus family in a blue gown with the same woven flower motif by Joseph Ducreux, presently in the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Our portrait comes from the extraordinary collection of Thomas Jefferson Bryan (as by Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin under number B 353) who was the first US collector of European Old Masters paintings, all of which were given in 1867 to the New York Historical Society who sold these important paintings at auction over the years of which many are now in major museums, led by the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The Sleeping Venus guarded over by a Cherub by Nicolas Chaperon (1612-1656) is deeply indebted to the classicizing style of Poussin. Chaperon who arrived in Rome in 1642 for a nine year-long stay, earned his living there by engraving paintings and classical art. He incurred the wrath of Poussin by his wayward behavior and apparent lack of reliability. And in contrast to the master whose mythological antiquity paintings were joyful and playful, Chaperon showed a more sensual and dark side. This may have caused also a definitive irreligious trend in his depictions of bacchanalia, peopled with lissome women and men surrounded by carousing cherubs. Chaperon’s woods are inhabited by satyrs clinging and climbing into trees, by lascivious females and by a restless staffage in a wooded background theatrical setting often offset by large red draperies draped over the trunks of trees. There is always a sort of intimacy as if the whole composition is set before the viewer as a special observer of a specific action. There is no depth in his scenes quite unlike his model, Poussin whose paintings offer an escape into the depths of far-off landscapes. No wonder that Poussin found him so unnerving. Little is known about Chaperon before he went to Rome aside from the fact that he formed one of Vouet’s many pupils. Only one major panting suggests this, the fine ‘Venus. Mercury and Cupid’ in the Louvre. Our painting shows the Venus figure with the rather typical coldness of her opulent flesh and characteristic classical sharp-edged features that one finds in many of Chaperon’s works. She reclines on a long sweeping gray purple drapery reminding one of sea waves, origin of her birth. The rather adipose young cherub who is guarding her from unwelcome glances by partly holding up the crimson drapery curtain conforms to the realistic cherubs chiseled by Bernini. Our painting is the French interpretation of Roman Baroque.