Audio guide to works from the NGA exhibition French Paintings from the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, shown at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 7 November 2003 – 15 February 2004
Léon BENOUVILLE, The Wrath of Achilles [La colère d'Achille] 1847
Léon-François Bénouville's splendidly modelled figure of Achilles intrudes into the space of the viewer. He literally steps beyond the surface of the canvas. Thus, in the painting's careful attention to the human form and in the precision of its modelling of paint, it fulfils ideally the task of the painted academic figure studies required of Prix de Rome winners.
Bénouville's painting of Achilles, a popular subject for nineteenth-century painters, shows the Greek hero at the moment where, after quarrelling with his leader, Agamemnon, he retreats from battle to his tent in a rage. Humiliated, Achilles refuses to continue fighting with the Greeks, who subsequently suffer a series of catastrophic defeats. As Agamemnon's envoys enter Achilles' tent, in the hope of convincing him to return to battle, Achilles springs to his feet, launching into a tirade. With a dramatic realism, Bénouville renders this precise, violent moment.
Sébastien BOURDON, The Lamentation [Déploration sur le Christ mort] c. 1665-1670
Due largely to the fact that he spent much of his adult life working outside of the country, and because of the very flexible nature of his work, which often shifted dramatically between styles and themes, Sébastien Bourdon’s work has often been ignored in France. Bourdon was, it was thought, a chameleon, whose skill was more in mimicry than innovation.
But as the comprehensive exhibition of his work at the Musée Fabre in 2000 demonstrated, Bourdon’s career is now regarded somewhat differently. Painted in the last years of his life, The Lamentation brings forward many of the painter’s fine attributes: dense, clear colours, emphatic modelling of form, and a dynamic composition that crystalises a series of often competing references, including Nicolas Poussin. As Bourdon often instructed his students, great innovation could be achieved by casting one’s interests far and wide.
Nicolas POUSSIN, Venus and Adonis [Vénus et Adonis] c.1626
Nicolas Poussin is one of France’s greatest painters. Venus and Adonis is an important example of the mythologies he painted in Rome during the 1620s. In Rome, the artistic centre of Europe, Poussin absorbed the lessons of classical antiquity and the Italian masters. Poussin’s innovation was to merge these influences with an often astonishing realism, refined through extended on-site study of nature and the figure.
Venus and Adonis presents an idyllic depiction of the ancient world. Seen at sunset, Venus and Adonis share their love in a landscape peopled with cherubim. Both landscape and figures are painted with a free and light touch. In this way, nature weaves all together: the humid haze of the Italian summer evening, the vibrant sun that dances indiscriminately over and warms foliage and bodies, and the lovers.
However, scholars have determined that the original painting was cut in two, the left hand side showing a river god in a landscape is now in a private collection. This might account for the enigmatic nature of the Musée Fabre’s painting and its narrative, where a series of figures, seemingly lost in worlds of private pleasure, are both entangled in the richly described landscape yet isolated from each other.
Simon VOUET, Allegory of Prudence [Allégorie de la Prudence] c.1645
Simon Vouet’s Allegory of Prudence is one of the Musée Fabre’s most significant paintings. It is remarkable as much for its formal bravado – its contorted arabesque lines, its statuesque forms, its dramatic lighting effects – as for its historical importance.
Allegory of Prudence was painted for the recently widowed Queen Regent, Anne of Austria, as part of a large commission to decorate the Palais Royal, Paris (1643–1647). The ambitious Regent – at the time the subject of a series of scandals, including a rumour that she had secretly married the powerful, scrupulous Cardinal Jules Mazarin – is depicted as the figure of Prudence, one of the four Cardinal Virtues from classical and religious texts. The beautiful, virtuous Regent is seen untroubled by the effects of the material world, whether the passage of time personified by the old man at her feet or politics and skulduggery, which she is literally above.
Jacques-Louis DAVID, Portrait of Alphonse Leroy [Portrait d’Alphonse Leroy] c.1783
Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of Alphonse Leroy is widely recognised as among the painter’s greatest portraits. In its sobriety, its scientific attention to surface effects and details, and its effort to produce an image of its sitter as psychologically complex, it forms a direct line to his many later, exceptional depictions of Napoleon Bonaparte.
David’s portrait of Leroy says as much about the social identity of the figure of the artist as it does about its subject. In his sparsely furnished study, wearing a turban, and taking notes from his copy of Hippocrates’ The Diseases of Women, the gynaecologist is seen as something of an ascetic genius. So, in turn, is the artist; he is, as the contemporary definition of genius asserted, one gifted with powers of close observation and the ability to imitate nature above those of ordinary men and women.
Jean Louis DEMARNE, A Ferry and Boats on a Canal [Bac et barques sur un canal] c.1800-1815,
Jean-Louis Demarne’s career was not that of a powerful Academician. He was instead a painter who actively sought out and capitalised on the taste of middle-class collectors. Influenced by the highly finished landscapes and genre scenes of Dutch painters currently in vogue among Parisian collectors, Demarne’s landscapes and genre scenes found an eager audience in France and abroad.
A Ferry and Boats on a Canal is an excellent example of Demarne’s picturesque depictions of everyday rural life. It uses the compositional convention of a central vanishing point that became something of a trademark for the painter. The landscape itself is quite generic, it could be Holland, Flanders or Northern France. Demarne is an important example of a commercially-minded artist who generally resisted participation in contemporary politics in favour of the private patronage of the burgeoning middle class.