Neptune calmant la tempête (Neptune calming the storm), an exceptional and large work by Pierre Brebiette (Mantes-la-Jolie 1598?-1642 Paris), oil on canvas, size 111.7 x 148.6 cm., fully attributed with the support from Dr. Paola Bassani Pacht author and Dr. Sylvain Kerspern, co-authors of the exhibition catalog Pierre Brebiette, Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orleans, 2002.
As Jacques Thuillier wrote in his preface to the catalog ” On peut voir en Brebiette un petit maître charmant qui poursuit en plein XVIIe siècle le vieux rêve païen de Fontainebleau et retrouve pour chanter Bacchus, les dryades et les satyres, les accents point si lointains ni oubliés de la Pléïade. Mais un autre image s’impose : celle d’un artiste indépendant, dont les expériences romaines eurent un role déterminant pour le développement du courant néo-venétien des années vingt “ (One could see in Brebiette a charming small master who pursues in the full seventeenth century the old pagan dream of Fontainebleau and recovers for our enchantment Bacchus, the dryads and satyrs, returning to the quite far removed but not forgotten sounds of the ‘Pléïade’- i.e. the Pléïade is the name given to a group of 16th-century French Renaissance poets, inspired by Alexandrian poets and tragedians of the 3rd century B.C. -. But another image imposes itself: that of an independent artist, to whom the Roman experiences were a determining role for the development of the neo-Venetian trend in the years twenty – i.e. 1620’s -).
Brebiette’s works have great charm, but there are traces of melancholy like in our painting as if celebrating a vanishing mythological world. His depictions of Proserpina abducted to the Underworld (there is an example in the Louvre and a small variation on copper now in private hands) denote a regret as if with her all of antiquity disappears into the dark. This large Neptune calmant la tempête with the prominent figure of Neptune en colère (wrathful), seems almost a warning not to forget or neglect the ancient gods while we navigate our uncertain fate. The ship with its torn sails struggles to reach a safe harbor, while a Triton heralds Neptune’s triumph. It is in fact a depiction inspired by the Aeneid of Virgil where Aeneas’ ship threatened by a storm invoked by Aeolus the god of the wind to exert a revenge by the goddess Juno on Aeneas is calmed by Neptune himself so that Aeneas will safely reach the coast of Africa, here seen in the distance.
Brebiette is an idiosyncratic painter as can be seen in his self-portrait engraved after the death of his wife Loyse de Neufgermain in 1637, which bears the inscription animum pictura pascit inani (Painting nourishes the heart of him who is overwhelmed), but also with a poetic and romantic nature almost modern in sensibility. His love for a vanishing ancient world was encouraged in Rome by the Cavaliere Dal Pozzo, the sophisticated patron of Poussin whose deep interests in Roman archaeology were well known. Having become peintre ordinaire du roi (court painter to Louis XIII) Brebiette enjoyed success in Paris with his tales from ancient mythology.
Both Dr. Bassani Pacht and Dr. Kerspern place our Neptune calmant la tempête to about 1640 towards the end of Brebiette’s working life, a date supported by the structure of the struggling ship and by an engraving by Brebiette dated 1640 of Le Temps sur son Char…etc. (in the Orleans catalog number 103, page 102, illustrated) which shows the figure of Time whose physiognomy resembles that of Neptune in our painting seated on a chariot and with fluttering robes comparable to the torn sails on Aeneas’ ship.
Dr. Bassani Pacht stated that she plans to publish our painting in an article on Brebiette’s landscapes in a forthcoming collection of essays in honor of the eminent art historian Jacques Thuillier, edited by Alain Merot, Philippe Sénéchal and Denis Lavalle. The painting is at present with the Galerie Alexis Bordes, in Paris with a special color illustrated catalog written by Dr. Paola Bassani Pacht.
A glowing Allegory of Requited and Abdundant Love, by Charles Poerson (Vic-sur-Seille 1609 – 1667 Paris), circa the mid-1630’s (?), oil on canvas, size 93 x 75 cm. Venus, whose lower torso is loosely wrapped in a mantle, sits in an informal pose between two putti representing Anteros as Requited Love and Eros as Abundant Love or in another sense, spiritual and sublime emotion against base and material wants. Cupid as Anteros stands confidently to one side, leaning on his bow and against the goddess’ knee, a stalwart defender of love’s sanctity and spiritual power. The other cupid jumping animatedly in front of a broken column is Eros, by contrast, an emblem of unchecked appetites as he attempts to seize the bunch of grapes that Venus prudently withholds.
One can infer from this tantalizing juxtaposition — along with the gathering storm clouds in the background — that a momentous decision has been made. The goddess, whose arm rests on Anteros’s shoulder, has chosen love that is high-minded and everlasting over the quest for more fleeting, sensual pleasures. It was not uncommon for artists of seventeenth century France to flatter their aristocratic female patrons by portraying them as classical goddesses like Venus or Diana and in poses reminiscent of Greek and Roman sculpture. This may be the case here, although the sitter is unknown. Nudity was no impediment to such portrayals provided that the goddess was clearly shown as the embodiment of beauty, chastity, wisdom, good breeding, and/or as a devout patron of the fine arts. (It was only from the mid-eighteenth century on that the middle class virtues of literacy, religious devotion, or motherhood became popular modes of representation).
The composition takes its inspiration clearly from the 16th century engraving by Giovan Battista de’ Cavalieri (1525-1601) after a seated antique marble Venus flanked by Anteros and Eros, kept in the Chiaramonti collection in the Vatican museums. The figure of Cupid as Anteros is directly taken from a fresco by Raphael circa 1516 in the Vatican (Stufetta del Cardinale Bibbiena) which was engraved by Agostino Veneziano (ca. 1490-ca. 1540) now kept in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (Inv. 59.570.230 and Bartsch XIV 218.286) (see below). Charles Poerson bathes the figure of Venus in strong white light emanating somewhat from the left, and frames her face and flowing locks with the contrasting tones of black and royal blue in the sky. The flesh tones are sumptuously rendered in fine gradations of color. A pink ribbon in Cupid’s hair marks him as the favorite of the goddess. The landscape background efficiently conveys a poetic atmosphere, and the broken column alludes to the vanity of once mighty civilizations now lost.
This Allegory of Love and Abundance would appear to be an appropriate summation of Poerson’s Atticiste style inspired by the Bolognese school of painters, incorporating an inventive disegno and subtle coloration with an admirable gift for conveying refined sentiment. The face of Venus is directly reflected in the face of Helena in Poerson’s small tondo of L’Enlèvement d’Hélène in the Louvre (Barbara Brejon de Lavergnée, Nicole de Reyniès and Nicolas Sainte Fare Garnot, Charles Poerson (1609-1667), Arthena 1997, color plate 2, cat. no. 3, page 78). It is only in the last thirty years that historians have come to recognize Charles Poerson as a major exponent of the new classical style in France during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Art historians like Clementine Gustin-Gomez have attempted to restore him to prominence by distinguishing his work from that of his contemporaries.
Dr. Gustin-Gomez wrote about the Allegory of Love and Abundance that the attribution is a very good idea without having seen the painting in person. Dr. Dominique Jacquot at the Strasbourg Museum of Fine Arts concurs. The attribution is fully accepted by Patrice Marandel, European painting curator at the Los Angeles County Museum. This painting was suggested already as a work from Charles Poerson’s hand by Jean-Claude Boyer, formerly from the Académie de France in Rome and by Sylvain Laveissière, the Louvre’s emeritus chief curator of paintings, based on the resemblance of the figures in this work to paintings and drawings known to be by the artist. The French collector Paul Micio who owns a major Poerson also recognized this work as autograph. Charles Poerson appears to have entered in 1634 the studio of Simon Vouet (1590-1649). It is reported that he worked with Philippe de Champaigne and Simon Vouet on Cardinal de Richelieu’s palace circa 1632.
It is possible that he went to Italy sometime during 1630s, which would support the connection of this composition with the antique marble sculpture and Raphael’s fresco in the Vatican (see above) although there is no direct evidence that documents this. In any event, he developed an Italianate style under Vouet’s tutelage, characterized by a restrained palette, strong lighting effects, the use of monumental figures modeled after antique prototypes, and a tendency to set the action against rather static but evocative architectural settings. His pictorial language became also closely aligned with Vouet’s. After the death of Vouet in 1649, Poerson’s style became more classical, that is, less theatrical and more intellectually complex both in composition and in his deployment of color. He settled as a painter in Paris from 1638 onwards and in 1651 he was elected member of the Académie royale. Charles Poerson designed a large number of cartoons for the royal tapestry works, les Gobelins.
Among his more famous works are the large and fine allegorical portrait of the young Louis XIV as Jupiter and victor over the Fronde rebellion hanging in Versailles and his beautiful and classical Camma et Synorix in the musée des Beaux-Arts in Metz, both of which relate directly to this superb Allegory, in particular in the faces and bodies of the grand figure of Louis XIV and the suffering Camma. The painting comes from a notable private collection in Rome and was exhibited at the New Orleans Museum of Art as by a close pupil of Vouet in 2008-2010. The painting was also on loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as attributed to Poerson in 2012/2013 (http://www.lacma.org ). The relationship of this image to the sculptural works in marble by Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720) and François Girardon (1628-1715) at Versailles and in the Louvre is remarkable in particular to their seated allegorical goddesses surrounded by putti.
Now in a private Paris collection.
A large and impressive Bacchanal by Nicolas Chaperon (Chateaudun 1612-1655 Lyon), oil on canvas, size 133.5 by 144.5 cm. This splendid image though maybe less reddish and lighter in tone than some of Chaperon’s other paintings (cf. ‘The Drunken Silenus’ in the Uffizi gallery in Florence) nevertheless displays many characteristics of Chaperon’s hand. For example one notices here the splatches of red color in the tree trunks like in an earlier ‘Faun and his Female’ by Chaperon (see above). And the prone figure of the inebriated Silenus is found in many of Chaperon’s drawings, etchings and paintings.
A comparison can be made with a drawing in the Albertina (catalogue 1993, inv. 11.587, F 127, page 236), erroneously given to Charles Poerson because of spurious signatures, showing clearly Chaperon’s graphic manner, which is far more solidly classical than that of Michel Dorigny and the familiar theme of a drunken Silenus carried by bachantes and playing cherubs. A close comparison can also be made between the typical physiognomy of the figures within a triangular composition and the five engravings after Chaperon by Michel Dorigny as confirmed by the art-historian and collector Jean-Pierre Mariette (1694–1774). The attribution is fully supported by Dr. Patrice Marandel of the Los Angeles County Museum.
All the bacchanalia are described by Dr. Dominique Jacquot and illustrated in the small exhibition catalogue edited by Dr. Sylvain Laveissière of Chaperon’s works at the Nîmes musée des Beaux-Arts in 1999, pages 79-135. The closest of these engravings is Laveissière’s catalogue number 22 (in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris), pages 104-106 where one can see the bacchante on the left in our painting who embraces the other bacchante half turned away from the viewer directly reflected in the bacchante who pours wine into the lifted cup of a kneeling bacchante (see detail below). This typical embracing gesture is present in many of the etchings and drawings after and by Chaperon (cf. the satyr embracing a tree trunk in our above listed example).
In fact a possible preparatory drawing for our painting of this theme, a bacchante bending over and pouring wine with a prostrate Silenus supported by two other bacchante was offered by Christie’s in Paris from the Palais Abbatial de Royaumont collection (sale September 19-21, 2011, lot 64 $ 29,138). While in another engraving by Dorigny after Chaperon the bacchante seen from the rear in our painting, is exactly like the bacchante depicted to the left in that etching (Laveissière, catalogue number 26, pages 112-114). The luscious fullness and massing of the figures in our painting can clearly be seen in the red chalk drawing in the Louvre and its engraving by Dorigny after Chaperon of ‘The Drunken Sileneus on a Goat Supported by two Fauns’(Laveissière catalogue number 24, pages 108-110).
The three-dimensional and triangular position of his figures against dark woods is directly reflected in a black chalk drawing by Chaperon in the Albertina in Vienna (inv. # 11.587, illus. and described by B. Brejon de Lavergnée et alia , Charles Poerson (1609-1667) , Arthena 1997, page 213, number 129) which could very well be a study for this work and is also comparable to the red chalk drawing of ‘La Nourriture de Jupiter’ in the musée des Beaux-Arts in Besançon. And the exact replica of our kneeling faun to the right holding up Bacchus is found in a copy after Chaperon of the ‘Union of Bacchus and Venus’ in the Grand Palais in Paris. Equally as noted by Jacquot is the manner of representing the forward inclined heads of the protagonists in a remarkably rhythmical pattern.
Chaperon’s cherubs play an integral part in his compositions by emphasizing a sensuality which is restrained in his figures. The charming conceit of depicting them as small fauns with rabbit-like ears is encountered often in Chaperon’s images. The overly developed dorsal muscles of his male fauns are also an immediately recognizable trait. Notable here too is the fairly dense treatment of the drapery in the red loincloth of the faun to the left, visible in our above listed example as well as in many engravings. Dorigny by comparison is far closer to Simon Vouet, their joint master with more dynamic compositions and an entirely different visual canon. Though the beautiful ‘Pan and Syrinx’ oil by Dorigny at the Louvre approaches our ‘Bacchanal’, its concept is of an entirely different and more evasive decorative appeal, in line with Dorigny’s loyalty to Vouet (which also places the fine ‘Allegory’ erroneously attributed to Charles Poerson and described above outside Dorigny’s oeuvre).
Though Chaperon is known so far mainly by his more somber palette, we can compare our pastel-colored painting to the large ‘Ceres’ in the London National Gallery whose profile though sharper shows a close resemblance with the features and the slanted eyes of the frontally facing and forward leaning bacchante to the left in our painting. Dr. Humphrey Wine of the London museum puts the relationship of that work to Chaperon in doubt, but even there the cherubs bear a close resemblance to Chaperon’s cherubs while Laveissière links its modeling and colors to the mural attributed by him to Chaperon in the Church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs in Paris. That mural though not in good shape reinforces a different aspect of Chaperon’s hand, namely an affinity to Poussin, which is also clearly seen in the figure of the faun to the left in our painting who is shown seen from the rear, an image which is obviously much indebted to the faun to the left in Poussin’s ‘The Nurture of Bacchus’ at the Louvre.
In addition there is the very interesting description by Laveissière in the Nîmes museum catalogue of an oil sketch of ‘Venus and Amor in a Landscape’, which he attributes to Chaperon and which has passed under several names from Vouet to Dorigny, but is close to Chaperon’s manner in “ le traitement du volume et des lumières, la pâte généreuse, la draperie cabossée, l’harmonie de roses et de bleu ardoise avec les terres” (in the treatment of volume and light, generous brushwork, pleated drapery and the harmony of pink, slate blue and earth tints). In fact Dr. Laveissière could have described our painting (Laveissière, page 21, color illus. Fig. A). It may well be as Laveissière has suggested about the London ‘Ceres’ that our canvas was meant for a decorative scheme or even as a design for a tapestry, because the large figures display a classicism unlike other works by Chaperon and with a pastel color eminently adapted to that purpose.
All this proves that more exploration of Nicolas Chaperon’s works is necessary and that our large elegant painting must be part of his mature decorative style. The exuberance, the extraordinary rhythm as well as the triangular composition wherein the large figures are typically enlaced and with glances that criss-cross but do not directly engage is also found in the very closely related, though slightly more Vouet-esque and therefore probably somewhat earlier ‘Venus, Mercury and Cupid’ by Chaperon, acquired by the Louvre Museum from Christie’s, New York on January 26, 2005 (lot number 24). But there the dominant color is a subtle orange-yellow, while in our painting a pinkish-red dominates, instead of the darker hues in for example the ‘Drunken Silenus’ in the Uffizi (which would seem like our example above of Le Faune et sa Femelle, to be datable to Chaperon’s Paris period before he left for Rome). In both paintings, this ‘Bacchanal’ and the ‘Venus Mercury and Cupid’ sold at Christie’s New York which is now at the Louvre, which may well be part of the dispersed large decoration of the chateau de Chilly as described in the literature, Chaperon displays his love for a drapery that fluidly waves as if in a strong wind to enliven the scene, which is also notable in all of the classical seventeenth century French masters. The composition is faintly blasphemous as it mimics the Deposition of Christ and like remarked above, Chaperon’s works reflect a definitive and very interesting heathen trend in the deeply religious atmosphere of seventeenth century France.
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)
Psyché abandonnée par l’Amour oil on copper, oval, size 41.5 x 35 cm. by Nicolas Bertin (Paris 1668-1735 Paris), a charming image, fully attributed, described and illustrated in Thierry LeFrançois ‘Nicolas Bertin’, Arthena 1981, catalogue raisonné, cat. # 57, pages 136/7, page 46, 223, illus. fig. 46.
The tale of Psyche and Amor was taken from the Roman writer Apuleius (A.D. 125-170) and became a popular theme from the Renaissance onwards, because it illustrated the seduction of the human soul by sensuality. Psyche deeply in love with an unseen nightly visitor, tries to discover who her lover might be and with her human curiosity wakes Amor and causes the evanescent god to flee. She despairs but Zephyr, the gentle god of the winds carries her upwards into Amor’s divine domain.
One is reminded here of the beautiful and elegant verses by Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), published in 1669: Tout l’Univers obéit à l’Amour; Belle Psyché, soumettez-lui votre âme. Les autres dieux à ce dieu font la cour, Et leur pouvoir est moins doux que sa flamme. Des jeunes coeurs c’est le suprême bien. Aimez, aimez; tout le reste n’est rien (The whole universe obeys Love; Beautiful Psyche, submit to him your soul. The other gods pay court to this god, And their power is less soft than his flame. For young hearts it is the supreme good. Love, love; all the rest is nothing).
The painting comes from the collection of a well-known curator at the reputed Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany and was included in an exhibition there in 1971 of Bildkunst im Zeitalter Johann Sebastian Bach, number 115. LeFrançois mentions that it was painted in the period of 1710-15 and may well have been intended for inclusion in a decorative scheme. It reminds him of earlier compositions by Bertin in showing influences of Louis de Boullogne as well as of Jean Jouvenet, his masters especially in the figure of Amor with his refined facial traits and curly hair which strongly recall the adolescent angels of Jouvenet.
LeFrançois discusses the painting extensively under catalogue number 57 by comparing it to other works and how the diagonal lines of the composition relate to similar ones in Chartres, Amsterdam, Autun and Baltimore. LeFrançois notes an interesting fact that this painting was acquired in Munich by the previous owner and thus he ventures to speculate that this work of small format could have been bought in France between 1709 and 1715 by one of the members of the extended court of Maximilien Emmanuel, the Elector of Bavaria, whose military defeats chased him temporarily from his estates and that the original owner of this painting brought it back home with him after 1715.
An art-historically interesting and elegant autograph replica of a May from 1705 depicting Saint Paul recevant les adieux des prêtres éphésiens (Saint Paul bid farewell by the Ephesians) by Louis Galloche (1670-1761), oil on canvas, size 92 x 73 cm. The Mays were large religious scenes, 3.60 meters high (about 141.5 inches) commissioned by members of the Paris gold and silver smiths’ guild, called La Confrérie Sainte-Anne des orfèvres parisiens to be hung inside the cathedral of Notre Dame starting in the year 1449 after the One Hundred Years war when the people of Paris were exhausted and needed moral and religious rehabilitation.
The May paintings were exhibited before the Notre Dame and then hung inside, but the first examples which were of smaller format are now lost. Thus the earliest still extant date from about 1630 and their name originates indeed from the month of Mai or May, which is a time of renewal and rebirth dedicated to the veneration of the Virgin. The payment was a generous 400 livres (about 10,000 dollars). The painters were expected to make copies of their May entry for the two members of the guild who commissioned the large version for the cathedral.
Ours is one of these and the procedure is fully described in the excellent small catalogue of Les Mays de Notre Dame de Paris edited by Annick Notter in 1999 for the Arras museum. The greatest French artists of the period were given this commission and it must have been a very prestigious task. Several of these large Mays have been preserved in the Arras museum where they were sent after the Revolution when the religious symbols were destroyed or dispersed, but the large May of 1705 by Galloche is kept at the Louvre (illustrated in Notter on page 100, as number 76 and described on page 94 and listed in 1763 – see below). Louis Galloche was the last link between the grand style of Le Brun and the more intimate one of the eighteenth century and he had a great reputation during his lifetime which waned over time. This elegant work forms thus an accurate ricordo of Galloche’s 1705 entry which was unlike several large Mays not returned to the Notre Dame.
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.
A remarkable and beautiful Portrait of an Elegant Woman in a Blue Embroidered Gown, oil on canvas, size 61.5 x 53 cm. by the French pastelliste and portrait painter Joseph Ducreux (Nancy 1735-1802 Paris). Ducreux is mainly known for his witty and almost caricaturist images of himself and closely observed other sitters. In these portraits, he succeeds in showing the character of the person depicted who in reverse keenly observes the painter, a mirrored very aware glance seldom known till then in French portraiture. Aside from the highly accomplished technique learnt from Maurice Quentin de la Tour whose only pupil he was, it shows in its soft brushwork Ducreux’s interest in pastels as well as the influence of Joseph-Marie Vien.
The attribution comes from a suggestion by Neil Jeffares, author of the very informational Dictionaire des pastellistes avant 1800, published in 2006 and generously available on the Internet. The attribution is fully supported by a pastel portrait of a woman also in a blue embroidered gown by Ducreux presently in the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The portrait comes from the extraordinary collection of Thomas Jefferson Bryan (as by Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin under number 353) who was the first US collector of European art, all of which was given in 1867 to the New York Historical Society who sold these paintings at auction over the years of which many are presently in museums led by the Metropolitan Museum in New York.