Louvre – Salle Mollien – Room XIV. – French School

WITH the exception of the few early men of the school that are to be found in the Petites Salles Françaises, the Louvre’s collection of French pictures commences with Room XIV. called often Salle Mollien. French painting practically did not begin till the seventeenth century. And for long it was little but an imitation of Italian art for which François I. is principally responsible. His admiration for everything Italian, and his bringing to Paris of all the Italian artists whom he could persuade to leave their native land, set the taste in France for a century, and undoubtedly prevented an earlier flowering of French art, per se.

Vouet, who was the teacher of Le Brun, was much esteemed in both France and England and was court painter for Louis XIII. His style is a copy of the Italian, and his pictures ” are rather dull in sentiment, heavy in painting and demonstrative in design.” The Presentation in the Temple which is in this room, Waagen calls ” careful in execution, with ideal heads after the style of Guido on forms far more awkward and less expressive.”

Nearly forty canvases by Poussin hang in Salle Mol-lien. Though the Anglo-Saxon mind can rarely agree with the extreme admiration bestowed upon Poussin by his countrymen, every critic must acknowledge his preeminence in certain important respects, and give him a place quite by himself as far away from the strict academic school of Le Brun as he was from that of Boucher. He was a classic of the classicists, though we of to-day may smile at some of the anachronisms of his works. He was a scholar, a thinker, an idealist of a rather bounded type. He was not spontaneous, his love of order and of well-managed and abundant line made him too careful, too studied, too cold. His gestures were seldom satisfactory though his forms were noble. He studied the antique, not nature, for his figures, and thus it is that more freedom, more truth, more esprit appear in his landscapes, which he did take directly from nature, than in his figures. In them his colour was often pleasing, sometimes luminous, sometimes softly golden, his effects of perspective generally excellent, his values true. If there lacked the dream-loveliness of a Lorrain, there were in them a solidity, a dignity and a repose of their own. In general it can be said without exaggeration that Poussin’s works were literary achievements of the brush. The story, the moral, the historical accuracy (so far as the time knew it), the orderly and proper arrangement of cause and effect, the value of climax, the subservience of parts to the whole, the importance of dramatic action are the things that were Poussin’s first care. It has been said of him that he was afraid to let his brush revel in colour for fear the import of his pictures might be lost. In his classical mind colour was on the whole an unimportant adjunct of the art of painting.

His works include almost every kind of subject and the Louvre possesses examples of his religious, historical and mythological paintings as well as fables, bacchanals, portraits, and landscapes.

The Rape of the Sabines takes place in a large square at the back of which is a temple, on the right a number of buildings. On a sort of platform at the left Romulus, accompanied by two Romans, is giving the signal for. the attack. His left arm is raised high waving his red cloak. He is in profile, but his fine torso, which is carefully and accurately modelled, is turned nearly three-quarters toward the spectator. Below on the ground at his feet stand two lictors, their excited gestures and eagerness of mien accentuating the intensity of the moment. The scene in the square itself is a well-thought out, studiously arranged pandemonium. Partly because thus scholarly in its construction, it lacks any real, pervading, over-powering horror. The Roman soldiers are attacking women with staves, dragging them from other soldiers, snatching them from their mothers’ arms, hauling them to their saddles. Before Romulus one mother kneels, anguished entreaty in her begging hands, terror in her piercing eyes. In the foreground at the left a soldier is striding off carrying a daughter of the Sabines. Both arms being thus more than employed he can only yell while she pulls with all her might at his thick curling hair. In the centre a Sabine is fleeing, robes streaming in the wind, while the maiden following is seized by a Roman soldier. At the extreme right an old mother on the ground is trying to cover and protect her daughter from a Roman who grabs the girl with one hand and pushes back the mother with the other.

The Holy Family on the south wall has one of the really lovely landscapes that Poussin often painted. Be-hind the pyramidal group of the family, a quiet river twists its way into a softly tinted country stretching out into a distance gradually lost among low mountains gently silhouetted against the sky. If the dwellings and buildings that interrupt the masses of trees and break the plains, suggest rather a Roman or Greek scene than Palestine, Poussin has only followed the steps of the great Italians before him. The gradations of tone in this whole vista are a triumph of artistic expression.

At the left, Mary, in a blue robe not overburdened with folds of drapery, is seated holding the child Jesus on her knees. He is leaning forward to caress the small St. John in the arms of Elizabeth. She is on her knees, her brown robes relieved by the white head-dress. Her face is in profile and age has not greatly marred the fine lines of brow, nose and chin. Behind the group in the centre stands Joseph, his head and eyes slightly inclined, his hands joined in prayer. He is dressed in the conventional red. In fact, if Poussin’s red and blue robes which fill so many of his pictures could be eliminated, or at least toned down, he would stand a much better chance of being appreciated at his true worth.

The Vision of St. Paul was painted for the Abbé Scarron, and is a subject which Poussin executed three times. It is a small panel, measuring only eighteen inches by thirteen. The one in the Louvre is a replica of his first attempt. St. Paul is being rapidly borne aloft, by three large winged angels. One, holding his left hand, is behind him, and rises over his body, her right hand pointing heavenward. The head of another below her is in shadow under the saint’s arm. She clasps one leg of St. Paul and seems with the third really to be bearing his weight. This last angel placed lower than any of the others, is more strongly centred in the light than even St. Paul. Beneath the group are the steps of a large classic building on the topmost of which is a book, and over it resting on the portal of the open door, a naked sword which reflects some of the light focused on the figures above.

There is not enough concentration of interest here. The arms and legs are all too prominent, giving a forked sort of appearance to the whole picture. In spite of very real beauties, even in spite of the exquisite figure of the angel on the left, the first impression is of a superfluity of flying legs and waving arms.

Time Rescuing Truth from the Attacks of Envy and Discord, Poussin painted to show his contempt for Vouet and the other French painters.

Poussin, after a youth of great hardship and poverty, went to Rome where he lived for most of the rest of his life. In 164o Richelieu called him to Paris where he was made painter in ordinary to the king, given apartments at the Louvre and showered with presents and plaudits. His supremacy over Vouet and the other French artists led to serious disagreements, and after only twenty-one months in the capital, Poussin, much hurt in his self-esteem by the adverse criticisms of Vouet and his followers, returned once more to Rome, never to leave it again. This picture was painted for Cardinal Richelieu for a ceiling decoration and was, as it were, his final shot at his antagonists in the French city.

The painting is round, the figures are all of life-size and the scene represents the clouds of the heavens seen through a quatrefoil of architectural form. Here in the sky the figure of Time bears up Truth, carrying her to Paradise. A cherub floats on his back near by, holding Time’s sickle and a serpent in the shape of a huge circlet. Below, sitting on the architectural framework, are Envy on the right, Anger, or Discord, on the left. Time’s body is somewhat dark in line and he is represented as an old but still wonderfully vigorous man. His drapery which falls only about the lower part of his torso, is blue, and the rapidity of his flight has thrown it far off his legs. His wide wings are in brown and gray tones. Truth, lying in Timie’s arms, is a beautiful golden-haired nude woman, with flesh of much lighter tone than Time. Her face is turned in profile, her arms are raised as if welcoming the approach to Eternity. The light falls strongly on both Truth and the charming little cherub, while Time is thrown mostly into shadow. The clouds about them are of a gray-green colour, though immediately below Time’s feet is an opening very bright and gleaming. The figure of Discord on the left shows her largely enveloped in a mantle that leaves her right shoulder bare. She is sitting with one leg drawn sharply up till the knee is greatly foreshortened, the other stretched out resting on the edge of the framework. Her head is thrown back, bringing her features into a profile sadly marred by the rancour with which she gazes after Truth, but still showing beauty. The foreshortening of this figure and of Envy is almost as perfect as Michelangelo could have accomplished. Indeed the two figures suggest that master. Discord clasps a torch in her upraised right hand and a poignard in her left, with which she had evidently struck at Truth just too late to reach her. She is a brunette in colouring and wears blue-green and red garments. On the right is Envy, doubled up in à very frenzy and wound about with serpents whose fangs are poisoning her. Her left shoulder from which the green drapery has fallen catches the light and her face is fairly livid.

In this composition are all the attributes so often claimed for Poussin but not so often justified in his works. Real depth of imagination, poetic conception, magnificent drawing, a composition free from superfluous accessories, no exaggeration in gesture, pose or draperies, and a colour that harmonizes with the thought expressed.

It is a very great work and alone would be enough to make Poussin’s name revered as one of the great men of all time.

In the colour of the Bacchanals Poussin showed the influence of Titian. The one on the north wall he painted for Richelieu before he departed for Rome. In the immediate foreground a nude Bacchante is lying out upon a bit of red drapery, her head thrown back in profile, asleep, a tiny baby, Bacchus-crowned, lying across her, also asleep. At the left another small boy is drinking out of a basin held by a satyr sitting with knees under him. A second satyr leans over and half holds the child up, while behind the two another Bacchante in a blue peplum rests against a staff, watching. At the extreme left, two more babies are standing hugging and kissing each other. The scene is laid in a kind of arbour with glimpses on each side of hills, trees, country and cloud-filled skies.

A group of five cherubs makes the Concert. They are playing and singing in the midst of a rather simple and sombre landscape. The leader of the band stands in front, legs planted firmly and widely apart, a laurel wreath in both extended hands. Behind him sitting on the ground are three others. One, on the left, in profile, has his right hand raised as if marking time for the other two sitting in front of him singing. One of these holds the sheet of music, while the other looks over his shoulder. Between the first and these two stands a fourth playing a big bass viol. There is a gaiety, spontaneity, abandon; and light-heartedness about this equal to Rubens, with a refinement Rubens never had. The colour, too, is warm and glowing.

The Four Seasons, are scenes taken from Biblical history and were done late in life. They are not up to his highest level, though French critics have praised parts of them greatly.

Like Poussin, Claude Gellée, who is best known by the name Claude Lorrain, spent most of his artistic life in Italy. He was a Frenchman by little more than birth. It was Italy that he loved, painted and chose for home. Unlike Poussin, it was not the antique that he worshipped but the panorama of nature herself. At his time French landscape art was a thing scarcely out of its swaddling-clothes, if indeed it can be said to have existed at all. He is not the follower nor yet the founder of any school. His poetic renderings of Italian country and seas are the transcripts of his own dreams. He had no one before him to suggest such renderings and no imitators could re-produce his style without possessing his mind and imagination. So penetrated by individuality is every tone of this golden singer that to copy is to leave out all that made the works the exquisite songs they are. Though Lorrain studied nature directly and spent hours memorizing every passing atmospheric change, he cannot be called a literal translator of nature’s moods. Whatever he saw he saw through the golden haze of his own imagination and as such gave it to the world. He seldom makes an exact portrayal of any definite place, though he has done so with the Campo Vaccino, the heights of Tivoli and a few others. But generally he put in bits from various places, regardless of their geographical position. He could not paint figures well and used to say that he sold his landscapes and gave away the figures in them. Till Ruskin’s day Claude’s name was synonymous for all that was perfect in landscape art. It is safe to say that now, only so few years after his arraignment by this English man-of-letters, Claude’s real and undying genius is as thoroughly, if more judiciously admired than ever. This lack of appreciation on Ruskin’s part is one of the many reasons why he was far from being the art critic that he considered himself.

There are sixteen paintings by Claude in this room, of which the most beautiful, perhaps, is the Landing of Cleopatra at Tarsus. This is in splendid preservation, and is rightly considered one of his chefs-d’oeuvre. At the left the huge treasure-filled barks of Cleopatra are at anchor near the shore at the right. Cleopatra has just landed from one of the small boats and is stepping up the royally wide entrance to the palace-like portal. Sur-rounded with attendants, she is holding out her hand in greeting to Mark Antony who is awaiting her on the landing. Another marble palace is slightly behind this, and that too is lapped at its foundations by the waves that, as they ripple and break, are bathed in the glory of the sun only just risen. The distance is the glowing east, and the wonder of the whole picture is not in these carefully posed, stiff, unnatural figures, nor in the classic lines of architecture, nor even in the mighty barks that form so admirable a dark mass against the sky. Not in these, but in the molten haze that shimmers over the blue waves broken into silver under the sun’s rays, in the shining of the enfolding atmosphere, in the golden poesie that, much more than temple, bark or queen recalls the days that poets sing.

Far different in subject is the Village Dance. In the centre a number of villagers are dancing in the shadow of spreading trees. A. hunting-party has just arrived and one of the gay men has taken a village maid by the hand to join in the festivities. M. Emile Michel thinks it is perhaps a souvenir of Claude’s birthplace.

The ‘ figures in Samuel Anointing David King of Israel, are placed under a Doric portico, which was an anachronism as common to the learned Poussin as to illiterate Claude. Time and unfortunate restoration have greatly injured this, but there is a tender mellow light that swims over the whole canvas, and the middle distance with its luminous, delicate gradations, is beautiful.

Ulysses Restoring Chryseis to Her Father was painted for the Duc de Liancourt and used to hang in his beautiful château. It is somewhat hurt by time but is still lovely. The sky is golden, with the sun not far above the horizon, and almost in front of it is the bark of the warrior, blurring with its own dark mass and shadow the golden pathway thrown across the dancing waves. But the edges of the gently ruffled waves still catch the shimmer and cut the darker blue sharply. At the left the enormous pile of princely buildings rises in half-light, and at the top of a stairway of most royal grandeur, Chryseis is presented to her waiting father by Ulysses. The immediate foreground is the beach that bounds the harbour and here sailors are unloading small boats, bringing cattle to land on heavy scow-like barges, while merchants and others stand talking. Other barks are seen in the harbour, and as always there is the soft middle plane and faintly hazy distance where sea and sky meet.

Campo Vaccino is a picture of the forum with people scattered here and there. This shows something of Claude’s effulgence of colour and luminosity of sky, but there is a certain studied effect in the whole scene.

Claude has many so-called Seaports in the Louvre, sometimes with the sun sinking, sometimes rising, now bursting through a cloud, anon veiled by a vaporous haze. But at whatever time or state of day there is always the shimmering golden atmosphere, the sun-kissed waves, the translucent sky. It is sufficient, perhaps, to describe one to give a fair idea of all.

A Seaport at Sunset, shows numerous groups of people on the sandy beach of the harbour. At the left some travellers are seated on a pile of baggage, one playing a guitar. Below, two noblemen are talking with a turbaned Turk, and in the centre a chevalier is drawing his sword in an attempt to separate a couple of fighting sailors. Small boats are drawn up on the shore and beyond in the harbour huge vessels mass themselves dark against the sky. At the left are a temple and lines of palatial buildings. More boats, big and little, float on the golden-tinted waves of the harbour, and at the right in the distance a bulky tower, its heaviness half-obscured in the shimmering haze of the setting sun, looms above the horizon line. Soft clouds melt into the arching sky, and the whole is like a day’s dream.

There is no poet’s day-dreaming in the pictures by the brothers Le Nain, a number of whose works are in Salle XIV. It is impossible to distinguish the style of these three brothers or properly to individualize their personalities. They were among the earliest of the academicians and were more influenced by the Dutch or Flemish than by the Italians. Their flesh-tones are dull, rather gray, with a greenish tone, their brush-work is tight, their people have a sad, drawn expression recalling the mournfulness of the visages of the Dutch Madonnas. Their drawing, if not impeccable is at least solid, and rather convincing. Their heads are particularly careful in construction, but their hands, though characteristic frequently lack definiteness of structure.

The Apparition of St. Scholastica to St. Benedict by Le Sueur, once in the Salon Carré, shows the saint kneeling in his white robes, his hands outspread, his face lifted in profile, the light from the heavens streaming upon his face. He is in the midst of an indefinite rocky landscape and before him sweeps down the celestial group of his vision. St. Scholastica, her hands crossed on her breast, is draped in blue. Three little angels look out from behind her robes and two young maidens are at her right, almost touching the ground with their feet. At her left are St. Peter and St. Paul, Peter in front with outspread arms regarding St. Benedict, Paul behind pointing to the heavens from which the light streams. There is beauty of expression here and real character drawing. As a composition it is not so good. The colour is pleasing, and as a whole it is full of a reality of religious fervour.

Nineteen pictures by Le Brun hang in this salle. Le Brun was the court painter of Louis XIV. He was also director of the Gobelins where not only tapestries but furniture, jewelry, mosaics, marquetry and bronzes were designed. It is really all his work that is now called Louis Quatorze. He was one of the founders of the Royal Academy, in 1648, and was given one grade after another in that celebrated company. Le Brun has been denominated the ” Louis XIV. in art,” and a critic has remarked ” That Le Brun’s work looks to us as if he never could have begun to paint without putting on the biggest of wigs.” He had very little real feeling and has been called the chief of the theatrical school of his time. The influence of Annibale Caracci is seen in his strongly contrasted groups, attitudes, draperies, in his forced tones, and in an ever noticeable grandiose manner. In all his works there is a pomposity that his marvellous fecundity, his really noble conceptions do not condone. His was not the art to express the inner, deeper emotions. He was at his best when he could indicate feeling by more or less violent contraction of muscles, by strong movements of arms, hands, heads or body, by marked gestures and attitudes. All his characteristics are found in his scenes from the life of Alexander. This series of pictures was supposed to be a sort of allegorical history of the triumphs of Louis XIV. himself, and was painted directly under the eyes of the king. After the fire of 1661 he restored the gallery of the Louvre and his painting of Apollo on the ceiling gave to it the name of Galerie d’Apollon. Le Brun exercised so strong an influence over the artists of his time that it can be said without exaggeration that Pierre Mignard and Vouet were the only two who did not come completely under his sway.

The Martyrdom of St. Etienne and the Holy Family, called The Blessing, have noble characterizations of face and scholarly drawing. In the latter especially there is for him an unusual grace and delicacy of sentiment,

In the Passage of the Granicus Alexander has crossed the river, his battalions are partly over and partly in the middle of the stream. Battle-axes and spears are flashing and crashing on all sides, standards are flying and every-where are extreme movement, noise, and warfare. Alexander is in the centre of the mêlée, his white plume flying victoriously in the air. His sword is drawn in one hand his shield is in the other, his horse is already trampling on the white horse of his enemy. Behind the king, Clytus, armed with a battle-axe parries the thrust that Spithridates tries to give Alexander. A trumpeter behind blows upon his instrument and orders forward the army who at the left are crossing the flood. At the right are the cavalry with their standards flying.

In the Entrance of Alexander into Babylon the conqueror is standing in profile in his gold and ivory chariot, drawn by elephants. By his side his slaves bear a huge, elaborately carved vase and before them, directing, is a mounted captain. Behind and around him his officers ride, the steps of temples and palaces are crowded with watchers and at the extreme left a family are crouched watching the conquering king.

There is some of the pompous grandeur of Le Brun to be found in the works of Rigaud, who was a boy when Le Brun was at the height of his fame; but at his best Rigaud had perhaps fewer faults than almost any other painter of his time, and in his more intimate portraits like those of his wife and mother we find him remarkably free from the academical restraints and conventions that governed so largely most of his day. In the seventeenth century the French were too near the end of the Italian Renaissance to feel the decadence in Guido, the Caracci, Caravaggio. It was consequently natural that the French painters of that day, who, with few exceptions lived as much as possible in Italy, should fashion themselves on this lowered model. Rigaud was remarkably free from ” that domination of misunderstood precedent which was the bane of all the arts in his time and country.” This may be largely laid to his admiration of Van Dyck and his endeavour to make his portraits partake somewhat of the attributes of the great Fleming, but even of this man his imitation was never slavish. His heads are marked by strong individuality, his hands no less. His pictures lose the stiff, set, angular lines of his contemporaries, his lace ruffles fall in some disorder, his scarfs and draperies are blown by a contrary wind, there is a feeling of freedom, perhaps almost of license in the very accessories of his portraits. In Rigaud’s time historical painting was considered the art par excellence and it was only by Le Brun’s advice, who saw the marked bent of Rigaud’s talent that the latter did not devote himself wholly to that so-called more aristocratic branch of art.

Of the pictures by him in the Louvre the canvas bearing the Portraits of His Mother in this room is the most charming. The two heads are painted facing each other, the left in exact profile, the right turned so that a bit of the right cheek is seen. Both have a white fichu, a black waist, earrings and a violet velvet cap. There are a sober earnestness and yet a decided savoir-faire about the head that give a very attractive and decidedly French individuality to them. They are painted with a freedom, a fineness and a surety that recall Van Dyck, possibly, but it is nevertheless wholly Rigaud. The face has an aquiline nose, a noble forehead, a firm yet tender mouth and a steadfast eye. It is altogether one of Rigaud’s greatest works.

Better known, perhaps, but far inferior in artistic value, is his Portrait of Louis XIV., painted in 1701. The king stands with his right hand on his sceptre which he rests on an ottoman beside him, his left on his hip. His left foot is advanced with the mincing, pointed toe as if he were about to step into a minuet. The high red-heeled shoes, the stupidly statuesque legs and the long folds of the voluminous draperies, are all so bad that one can only marvel at the taste of a time that admired them. Spreading about him in deep folds is the enormous blue velvet robe with its ermine lining, and its golden embroidered fleurs-de-lis. Back of him are the red curtains fairly rampant in their folds and creases and back of them the inevitable pillars. The head, with its overpowering wig of curls that fall over his shoulders, is well painted and it is evident that Rigaud was not afraid to put down exactly what he found in the person of his royal sitter. If at that day it was called grandeur, dignity and most royal poise, now it looks very like pomposity, strut and most egregious self-esteem.

The Portrait of Bossuet is much better, and in spite of the conventional background, and the usual heavy robes and laces of the prelate, there is very wonderful delineation in that thin-lipped, keen-eyed, strong-chinned, asceticbrowed statesman-churchman-poet. It is supposed that only the face is wholly the work of Rigaud.