There has always been something very special indeed about the Hotel Ritz in Paris. Whether it was Hemingway and Fitzgerald getting plastered and arguing in the bar, or Count Esterházy bringing in a troupe of Hungarian gypsy musicians to serenade him and his dinner guests – a moment lovingly referenced in the woefully under-appreciated Audrey Hepburn/Gary Cooper classic “Love in the Afternoon” – this grandest of grand hotels has played host to numerous famous people and important events. The Nazis took over the Ritz as the headquarters for the Luftwaffe in World War II, while Princess Diana dined at the hotel just before the car crash which took her life.
The Ritz closed in August for a two-year complete renovation, and as part of this many of the historic rooms were temporarily emptied of their fine French furnishings. One of these was the suite where the legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel lived for over three decades. In the process of cleaning out her former living space, thanks to the keen eye of a French art historian who had been viewing the rooms before their closure, the hotel has managed to bring about the re-discovery of a major work of Baroque painting.
Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) was the preferred court painter of Louis XIV; in fact the Sun King referred to Le Brun as “the greatest French artist of all time.” His first royal commission so pleased the king that he raised Le Brun to the nobility, and put him in charge of all decoration in the royal residences. The famous “Hall of Mirrors” at the Palace of Versailles for example, is covered in his work. Le Brun was appointed the director of the newly-established royal academy of painting and sculpture, which later became known as the “Academie des Beaux-Arts”, and laid the foundation for the academic tradition in French art for nearly three centuries.
The work which hung unnoticed at the Ritz appears to be Le Brun’s depiction of the Trojan princess Polyxena, who was executed by the Greeks for complicity in the death of the hero Achilles. If you remember your histories of the Trojan Wars, one retelling of the story is that Achilles made the mistake of letting Polyxena, whom he had fallen in love with, learn the secret of his vulnerable heel. Her brother Paris later used this knowledge to kill the Greek hero with a poisoned arrow.
The painting is signed with Le Brun’s initials and dated 1647, which places it prior to his coming into the service of Louis XIV. As such it is an important example of the younger Le Brun absorbing the lessons of the painters whom he studied in Italy during a three-year-long stay there, including the High Renaissance master Raphael, and his own countryman Poussin. Taking what he had learned from these, Le Brun adding greater exuberance and theatricality to his own, highly fluid style, which perfectly exemplified the more emotional and dramatic style of the Baroque.
Le Brun’s re-discovered masterpiece is set to be auctioned at Christie’s with what to me sounds like a rather low pre-sale estimate of half a million euros. While it is a large work, it is not nearly the size of the absolutely gigantic canvases which Le Brun was able to execute on behalf of the Sun King later in his career. So should you have a spare million or two sitting around, gentle reader, owning a painting of this quality, formerly the property of the most famous hotel in the world, and which Chanel herself probably looked at every day, would not be a bad investment.
“The Sacrifice of Polyxena” by Charles Le Brun (1647)
Hotel Ritz, Paris