​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.

The Art Of “I Love You”

No matter how much you know about great art, there is always something new to discover. Recently I’ve become interested in the work of a Swedish painter, Alexander Roslin (1718-1793). During his lifetime he was arguably the most fashionable portrait painter in Paris, but today he is not as well-known as he ought to be. Today I want to draw your attention to a charming portrait of his wife, who was also a popular but now largely forgotten artist. The painting is not only a charming piece in its own right, but I think it captures something of the love which the two of them felt for each other, in a way which was very unusual for the time.

Roslin was born in Malmö, the city in Sweden now famous as a major international business and design center, but in 1718 not much more than a tiny provincial town of a couple of thousand people. He moved to Stockholm in his teens to study painting, and his career might have remained that of a provincial Swedish painter had he not been given the opportunity to travel and study in Germany and Italy. Then in 1752, Roslin moved to Paris, where he met a young lady named Marie-Suzanne Giroust (1734-1772).

Giroust was an orphan from a comfortably well-off, conservative family of artisans, whose father had been jeweler to the King of France. She used her inheritance to study art, and it was while she was taking classes in pastel drawing from Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809), later the official court painter to Louis XVI, that she met Roslin at Vien’s studio in The Louvre. The two immediately fell in love, but Giroust’s bourgeois family refused to allow her to marry Roslin: he was from a poor family, he was a foreigner, and he was a Protestant.

It took seven years for Giroust to wear down her guardians, but eventually she succeeded, in part due to the intervention of the Count of Caylus, Roslin’s main artistic patron, and the Swedish Ambassador, who agreed to witness their marriage contract in 1759. This combination of persistence on behalf of the couple, and persuasion on behalf of the higher-ups, eventually convinced Giroust’s family that this would be a respectable marriage. She and Roslin went on to have six children together, 3 boys and 3 girls.

“The Lady With The Veil”, which is in the National Museum in Sweden, was painted by Roslin in 1768. It shows a lady dressed “à la Bolognaise”, the style then fashionable in the Italian city of Bologna. The lady’s head, shoulders, and part of her face are covered by a voluminous, black satin veil, which has led some art historians to speculate that it was painted during Carnival or Lent.

Despite her somber overlay, it is hard to imagine a more feminine and charming image of a lady. The subject of this picture is smiling and blushing at someone over to her left. Even though we can only see one of her eyes, the one that we can see is obviously twinkling at the object of her gaze. Whoever it is, she clearly has a soft spot for them, but it is actually the fan that tells us who she is looking at.

Back when ladies carried fans, they were more significant communications weapons than we would appreciate today. Depending on how a lady held her fan, she could send a message to someone else, provided that they knew how to read the secret signals which a lady’s fan could convey. The drawing of a folded fan across the right cheek was well-known “fan-speak” for, “I love you.”

No prize then, for guessing that the lady with the veil is Giroust herself, and the person whom she is signaling to is her husband, Roslin.

When this painting was exhibited in the Salon of the French Royal Academy the year of its creation, the French philosopher Diderot praised it, and famously commented that it was “très piquante’ – “very spicy”. Given the flirtatiousness of the Rococo era, it would be easy to look at this picture as an example of 18th century coquetry, like the work of Boucher or Watteau, which was later swept away by the horrors of the French Revolution. However given the back story of the couple involved, I think there is a lot more depth to this picture than meets the eye.

What I find particularly interesting is that this image was painted in 1768, nearly a decade after Roslin and Giroust were married, and after they had to fight tooth and nail for years just to get permission to marry in the first place. This is a couple that had already been through tremendous strain and hardship together long before they got to their marriage vows, let alone having to deal with the six rugrats they soon had scampering about the house after they were married. It strikes me that a man who could paint his wife in this way, after ten years of marriage and six children together, is still very much in love with her, and she is still very much in love with him.

Sadly, Giroust died of breast cancer at the age of 38, four years after this portrait was painted. Her husband never remarried, but he did manage to survive the French Revolution, unlike many of his patrons. This image remains a beautiful testament to their marriage, and the power of truly devoted love.

Blow Out: Destruction And Danger In A French Cathedral

Recently a number of people have been sending me links regarding the transformation of an elegant French chateau into a monstrosity for the display of (mostly bad) art. It’s odd that this story has only been making the rounds in the commentariat now, since the destruction of this building actually took place a few years ago. However in the uproar over this act of architectural violence, few have noticed a more recent architectural disaster in France that needs addressing.

Two weeks ago, the 13th century rose window of Soissons Cathedral was blown out during severe winter storms, leaving a gaping hole in the façade of the West Front. As Apollo Magazine notes, thanks to the solid engineering which went into its construction, the structure of the great window at Soissons had successfully withstood previous disasters, including a nearby explosion during the Napoleonic Wars and bombardment during World War I. The great iron pins that hold the stone tracery together did their job for many centuries, up until now.

Back in 1918, a bomb blew out all of the glass in the rose window, but left the structure of the window itself intact. The replacement design was a pleasant if unremarkable hybrid of Romanesque and Gothic, depicting Christ seated in judgement of the world. This is an entirely appropriate theme for the West Front of a Gothic cathedral, where the decorative program usually references the Apocalypse, including the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, and the condemnation of the damned to Hell.

In addition to the structural damage, officials will have to address the problem of replacing the church’s organ, which stood behind the window and was destroyed as it caved in. The instrument dated from the 1950’s and, although not as ancient as the rest of the building, it did hold historic significance for lovers of sacred music. It was for this organ that composer Maurice Duruflé wrote his Opus 12, “Fugue sur le carillon des heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons”.

However even before the organ can be dealt with, the Cathedral is obviously going to need a new window. The glass of the now-destroyed window was itself a replacement, less than a century old and not of particular artistic importance. One could argue that the Cathedral is less morally bound than it might otherwise be, regarding its replacement.

Therein, of course, lies the potential danger.

For decades, there has been a tendency in church renovation to take advantage of the opportunity to replace failing or missing stained glass with ugly and embarrassing designs. Usually the replacement window exhibits no genuine artistic skill, or it has little or nothing to do with Christianity. We can see this in historic churches all over the world.

At the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona for example, which was burned by leftists during the Spanish Civil War, there are several miraculous survivors of windows from the Middle Ages. Yet some of the replacement windows are both ugly and inscrutable, such as this one installed in commemoration of the 1992 Olympic Games. Similarly, Westminster Abbey in London recently announced that it has commissioned a new window from British artist David Hockney, meant to honor Queen Elizabeth II. I realize that I am in a very tiny minority on this point, but I find Hockney’s work juvenile and shallow, and I expect the end result to be something similar.

What will Soissons do? Will the previous window, of which many images exist, be recreated? Will a new design in keeping with the subject matter of the old window be commissioned? Or will an image of the Last Judgment be considered too out of step with “who am I to judge”?

Only time will tell, but given the state of Christianity in Europe generally, and the many decades of horrible church renovations we have seen since the 1960’s, I don’t honestly feel too hopeful about the outcome in this situation.