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 quite wonderful painting (shown here during restoration) showing the Abduction of Persephone into the Underworld by Pierre Brebiette (1598?-1642), oil on canvas, size 61 x 89 cm. A subject matter dear to Brebiette probably because of a very much-lamented decease of his wife Louyse de Neufgermain in 1637, was depicted also in large circular form in a well-known painting in the Louvre as well as in a similar work in Chalon-en-Champagne. In effect Brebiette made an engraving of himself which states that art is the only consolation for her loss and how overwhelmed he was by it. Our painting may well be the earliest of the three because it follows rather closely the fine engraving of the Abduction of Persephone by Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630), who never used this scene for a painting himself (engraved in 1606 for the Metamorphoses of Ovid, titled Rapta Proserpina, Cyane in stagnum sua nominis convertitur). But the softness of the outlines is entirely typical of Brebiette as is the choice of coloring and a subdued form of bizarreness in the choice of this kind of composition. Brebiette remains a very curious painter with an enormous and intriguing and beautiful set of engravings.
The unusual feature of this remarkable seventeenth century grand opus of Venus Chastising Amor (oil on canvas, size 118 x 94.5 cm) is that it resembles Simon Vouet’s style early on in Rome with its soft modeling of the outlines as well as his later elegant manner and pastel hues. The painting is clearly produced during the period spanning from about 1620’s to 1640’s. There are many followers of Vouet, all of who formed a resistance to Poussin’s strict Classicism and who painted in a more sensual and lighter colored Bolognese manner. None of these seem to be able to have produced our rather symbolic painting, but there is one person whose artistic output has not been clearly established and whose works still hide under different names. And that is Simon Vouet’s gifted Italian wife Virginia da Vezzo (Velletri 1601-1638 Paris), who was already an accomplished painter according to contemporary sources when she met her future husband in about 1625. She was depicted many times by the associates of her husband and one of them, Claude Mellan made an engraving of her image (showing the same form of loose flowing hair as in our painting). She is also the model for some of Vouet’s female saints. The only secure work that is attributed to her is her self-portrait from about 1627 when she married her husband, as ‘Judith with the Head of Holofernes’ in the Nantes musee des Beaux-Arts and before they left for Paris. But as Guillaume Kazerouni has well observed (http://www.thearttribune.com/Judith-and-Holophernes-by-Virginia.html), its outlines are rather distinct which could suggest possibly an input by Vouet or as is far more probable a direct reflection of her training in Rome before the influence from Vouet could have formed a definitive feature of her art.
But her features are typically reflected in our Venus with the pink heavy eyelids, a long nose, slightly open mouth and ovoid face with a high forehead and small chin while the coloring and modeling of the face and hands are essentially of the same kind of manufacture. In both paintings one encounters a deeply hued and well-delineated drapery that envelops the figure as if protecting it, while the body itself is in a stylized semi-monolithic stasis. There is though a certain maladroitness in the anatomy which is reflected in both the Judith and in our painting. Another self-portrait by her is kept in the Apolloni collection in Rome (from which a former painting of ours came -see above-, a splendid Allegory by Charles Poerson) and which already shows a considerable softening of the outlines with layers of diffuse glazing, thus less Roman in manner. A copy by Marie Metezeau in pencil on paper from 1636 of another self-portrait by da Vezzo in the Rennes Musee des Beaux-Arts displays the same casual handling of the hair. Da Vezzo went with her husband to Paris in 1627 where she has been recorded as a talented painter and teacher of young women artists. What one sees here in our work is an approximation to Vouet’s later style in Paris, which became lighter, softer and with undulating lines, but still retaining the memory of an Italian ambiance, and here even with traces of late-Mannerism, lingering on in Paris at that time.
At the same time there was also a strong Flemish influence in Paris reflected in the presence of a glass vase with a red carnation, the symbol of deep love which also reminds one of the still lives of Lubin Baugin and the mise-en-scene of a theatrical setting against metallic blue curtains with gold braid and a golden tassel, which is held up to reveal the frozen sculptural action, a manner strongly reminiscent of Jacques de Stella. The figure of Amor displays a Vouet-esque full face with a retroussé nose and loose blond curls. Venus is seen as a majestic figure of female charm showing her origins in sea foam by the pearls in her hair, but not as a sensual object because she displays a self-containment in looking down with half-closed eyes that is shared in fact by da Vezzo’s self-portrait as Judith.
The iconography is interesting as it is typical for an early seventeenth century female artist. Like Artemisia Gentileschi who was crueler, da Vezzo chose almost cynically to ridicule the profane love denied: Amor has the caricatural face of a tearful disgruntled lusty male rejected by the beautiful goddess of love. We propose that our very striking painting is a fine and rare example of Virgina da Vezzo’s as yet unrecognized production in Paris somewhere between the dates of 1628 and 1638.