​Sacred Art In Sardonic Times: A New Exhibition On 18th Century Parisian Religious Art

For the most part, I’m not hugely interested in the majority of 18th century French painting. I find scraggly landscapes populated with cavorting shepherds, and mythological scenes featuring flower-bedecked nymphs the color of raw prawns to be rather ho-hum. Perhaps because the French taste was so de rigueur at European courts during this period, and frivolous, often sardonic images covered walls, furniture, snuff boxes, and just about everything else, it became overly diluted and, to me, very boring.

So it was interesting to scroll through this article in Apollo Magazine and learn a bit more about some of the religious paintings of the era, which are featured in a new exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris, “Baroque during the Enlightenment: 18th Century Masterpieces in Paris Churches”. As I’ve often commented in these pages, one of the joys of art history is that there is always something new to learn: just when you think you’ve tapped out a particular area of enquiry, something new appears on the radar. A quick run through this PDF press release, which features images of the works included in the exhibition, shows why this is the case.

As Apollo correctly points out, the title of the exhibition is a bit of a misnomer, for most of the images in the show are not really examples of Baroque art. Many of them feature pastel palettes and sweet expressions employed by artists such as Francois Boucher in decorating the boudoirs of royal mistresses like La Pompadour. Some of the images look like still lives of the dainty figurines being produced during the same time period by European porcelain factories like Sèvres or Meissen.

At the same time, for all of the Rococo frou-frou of Nicolas Largillière’s “Nativity” (1730) from Saint-Suplice, there are some works which, when examined individually, are more interesting compositions than one would normally associate with the general frivolity of 18th century French art. David’s physically powerful and visually stark “Christ on the Cross” (1782) for example, now in the Cathedral of Mâcon, is something of a surprise, since David rarely ventured into the realm of sacred art. He is better-known as a history painter, an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution, and later as Napoleon’s chief artistic propagandist. 

While his depiction of the Crucifixion is more focused on capturing the human form – albeit with strangely disproportionate arms – than in conveying themes such as suffering and redemption, at the same time the artist is consciously harkening back to the work of Baroque artists, particularly the Tenebrists, who specialized in this kind of intense, stripped-down imagery.

Similarly, Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre’s “Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket” (1748) harkens back to late Renaissance and Baroque models, in particular showing the influence of much earlier Venetian artists such as Veronese for both its composition and coloring. 

Like David however, Pierre doesn’t quite get the details right. The effect of his altarpiece is somewhat spoilt by the overly decorative and frilly French uniforms of the supposedly English henchmen shown attaching the aged Archbishop at Mass. Moreover the expression on the chief attacker’s face is also more comical and pantomime-ish than threatening.

Taken as a whole, these paintings show how the Enlightenment had a pernicious effect on the elites who commissioned them. While some of these pieces are charming and beautifully executed, none of them is particularly inspiring. What we are seeing is mostly play-acting, with the costumes and settings being more important than the story. 

Perhaps the only really moving piece in the entire show is Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié’s painting of the Baroque “Calvary Chapel Of The Church of Saint-Roch” (1765), which shows a hauntingly beautiful sculptural-architectural creation from the end of the Baroque era that was later destroyed by leftists (of course) during the French Revolution. Really, this chapel should be copied and recreated elsewhere. I can’t quite get my mind off that beautifully simple pose of the statue of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross:

While some of the works in this show are now in museums, others are normally still hanging in the churches for which they were originally created. If you know anything about art history, you know that this is something of a rarity, since most works of art at some point end up getting stolen from the Church and shipped off to the national collection under some pretext. To see these examples displayed together therefore, is a rare occurrence, and no doubt worth your time should you happen to find yourself in Paris this summer.

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