With yesterday’s readings at Mass continuing the story of the revolt of Absalom against his father, King David, I started wandering around the infinite rabbit hole of the interwebz, reading up on some Biblical scholarship concerning the dysfunctional Davidic dynasty, and researching some works of art depicting the tumultuous relationship between David, his wives, and his children. In the course of this, I came across a painting by Eustache Le Sueur (1617-1655) who, although he died young, was a figure of great importance in the history of French painting. Yet it was not his striking image of a scene from the calamities of King David’s family that really grabbed my attention, but rather a wonderfully quiet, introspective, and architectural painting of his which I had not seen before.
Le Sueur was one of the founders of the “Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture” (“Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture”) which, after its dissolution during the French Revolution and subsequent reestablishment under Napoleon, became one of the divisions of the “Académie des Beaux-Arts” (“Academy of Fine Arts”.) As was true of many French court artists of his period, Le Sueur’s focus was usually on rich colors, billowing draperies, beautiful bodies, and plenty of action. His “Rape of Tamar” (c. 1640), now at The Met, exemplifies this in spades. It’s interesting to note that, when taken in at a distance, the palette here is a combination of both neutrals and different shades of the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue.) As it is believed that the painting was part of a decorative cycle for a Paris mansion, it may have been that this was the color scheme for the room in which it was originally placed.
We can contrast what was fashionable in French courtly art at this period with the height of courtly art in Spain at the exact same time. Diego Velázquez’ “The Rest of Mars” (1640), one of a series of classical/mythological subjects painted for King Felipe IV which are now in The Prado, seems as though it was painted on a different planet in a different century, not in the same year as Le Sueuer’s “Tamar”. Here, unlike the figure of Amnon in the French piece, Velázquez does not idealize his subject at all. We see an old, tired, warrior – sporting quite the handlebar mustache – who stares out at us with a look that is one of both exhaustion and suspicion. It is so unsentimental and realistic, so frank in its unglamorous portrayal of its subject, that it anticipates by several centuries the work of American artists such as Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer.
Yet for all of his flash, Le Sueur was not simply a decorator. Between 1645 and 1648 he painted a series of wall paintings depicting scenes from the life of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian Order of monks, for their monastery in Paris. These works were eventually purchased by Louis XVI, and are now part of the permanent collection at The Louvre. It is difficult to believe that the same artist who painted the rather plastic, artificial-looking “Tamar” in 1640 is the same artist who, only a few years later, painted this rather stark, realistic night scene of a group of monks gathered around the deathbed of St. Bruno. Interestingly however, note that Le Sueur is once again sticking to neutrals, something which, even with the use of primary colors in the “Tamar” picture, he knew well how to employ in his art.
But of all the paintings in this series the one that really struck me, which I wanted to share with you today, is this one – “St. Bruno at Prayer”:
Le Sueur has depicted St. Bruno in prayer at the most critical juncture in the saint’s life, when he has decided that the time has come for him to abandon the world and devote himself to a life of prayer and penitence. There is a pious story that the saint was persuaded to do so when, at the funeral of Raymond Diocres, a supposedly saintly and well-respected professor at the Sorbonne, the corpse briefly came back to life to exclaim that despite his good reputation, it was all false and he had been justly condemned after death as a sinner. Thus, we see two undertakers in the background, through the archway, preparing to bury the corpse of Diocres in the churchyard.
Despite the questionable veracity of this legend, St. Bruno did, around this time, begin to withdraw from the world, and did go on to found the Carthusian Order, a strict, contemplative branch of religious life which is familiar to any of my readers who have seen the superb documentary film, “Into Great Silence”. St. Bruno got his start as a religious founder rather late in life, particularly at a time when history when people did not live very long. After spending much of the first half of his life climbing the ecclesiastical ladder, he only made up his mind to abandon the world around the age of 47, and really only began that process in earnest at the age of 50.
What Le Sueur does beautifully here is create that sense of Carthusian stillness around St. Bruno, long before the Carthusians themselves came to be, where he has no distractions at all from what is going on inside his heart. Even though the picture is wonderfully simple, in keeping with the values of the Order, Le Sueur still manages to throw in some color, not only in the form of the misty landscape outside of the church, but particularly in the red curtain and altar cloth which provide the strongest tone in the entire picture. There is even a bit of red brick showing through the whitewash and plaster on one of the walls.
The figure of the saint himself, in this elegant architectural space, is beautifully observed. We only see part of his face, hidden under his floppy hair and full beard – both of which will eventually be completely shaved off – but we can tell from his pose that this is a highly emotional and deeply personal moment he is experiencing. St. Bruno is so overcome with emotion that he clasps his own arms, whether to steady himself from shaking, or whether he is symbolically embracing the new way life he has chosen to begin, as he kneels before the crucifix.
Note as well that, although this is a painting from the Baroque period, the most Baroque thing about this image are the complicated folds and falls in St. Bruno’s garment, and in the drapery above and behind him. The architecture of the church, and even the altar itself, are incredibly plain, simple, and serious. The only levity, if we are to call it that, comes from the dangling red tassel, suspended from a red cord.
Although Eustache Le Sueur died relatively young, and a number of his most important paintings (particularly those commissioned for the French Royal Palaces) have been lost, this series of images from the life of St. Bruno help to dispel the notion that he was simply another highly decorative, frivolous painter, more interested in nudes and action than in introspection and genuine emotion. Perhaps he was lucky in that, for once, those commissioning his work were interested in things that were not of this world, rather than in the glitter and flash of the visible world in which we find ourselves. And as someone who had not been familiar with his toned-down, more personal work for the Carthusians until now, I’m very glad to have become aware of them.