By Stephen Gjertson
In 1857, seven years before the artist’s death, the eminent French art critic, Edmund About, wrote of Hippolyte Flandrin, “If posterity is just it will call him ‘Flandrin without fault.’ . . .” Unfortunately, posterity has not been just and Flandrin, who was one of the truly great artists of the 19th century, has sunk into obscurity. “Flandrin without fault” has become, except for a few specialists in 19th century French art, Flandrin the forgotten.
In his own time Flandrin’s peers referred to him as the French Fra Angelico. His work exerted a marked influence on French religious decoration during the second half of his century, particularly through his pupil Jules-Elie Delaunay and the work of Adolphe-William Bouguereau. Then, with the advent of Impressionism and the rise of the Modernism he, like most of his colleagues, was relegated to academic limbo. Until recently, if Flandrin was remembered at all, it was in the minor position as a pupil of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, in whose shadow he seemed forever condemned to languish, referred to as an undistinguished disciple of a genuine master.
Because Flandrin was essentially a portrait painter and a decorator of French churches, very little of his work resides outside of France. Except for a handful of portraits, a first-hand assessment of his work is impossible in this country. It was inevitable and fitting, therefore, that his own countrymen, led by the Louvre’s Jacques Foucart, should begin restoring Flandrin to his justly-deserved place of honor in 19th century French art. In the fall of 1984 the Luxembourg Museum in Paris opened an exhibition of paintings, drawings, and studies by the three Flandrin brothers—Hippolyte, Paul, and Auguste. This comprehensive exhibition was the first to be held of their work in over eighty years. It revealed the brothers, especially Hippolyte and Paul, to be brilliantly accomplished artists. Hippolyte’s work exhibits a depth of sincerity, a purity of style, and a simple, yet suave beauty of workmanship.
As an artist, I have admired the work Flandrin since I first saw a reproduction of his portrait of Napoleon III while in high school. About eight years later, after seriously studying painting, I traveled to France with fellow students James Childs and Thomas Mairs to see his work in person and was very deeply moved by it. Since then my interest in Flandrin has grown from simple admiration to a more profound appreciation of his life and work as they form an integrated whole. I visited Paris again in 2005 and renewed my respect for him.
During his lifetime Flandrin was as well respected as a person as he was a painter. His work and life provide us with a rare and precious example of artistic excellence wedded to personal integrity. Those who knew Flandrin described him as “modest and noble,” “sincere and pious,” “earnest and thorough,” “honest and morally upright.” His close friend, the composer, Ambroise Thomas, described Flandrin as simply “a superior artist and a good man.”
It is obvious that an artist’s work directly reflects the character of the artist. Each artistic element, from the choice and conception of the subject to the minutest nuance of execution, will bear the indelible stamp of its creator. The art of Hippolyte Flandrin bears the imprint of a serious and thoughtful mind, a mind that was constantly searching for significance. For Flandrin, significance was governed by his Christian faith and his artistic principles. His Christian faith was a gift from God; his artistic principles were acquired by study and practice in the atelier of Ingres. He adhered to both with the utmost sincerity and conviction throughout his life.
Early Life and Training
Hippolyte-Jean Flandrin was born in the town of Lyons, France, on March 23, 1809. He was the fourth of seven children. His father, after a few unsuccessful years at business, had aspirations of becoming a history painter in the School of Lyons. However, he began his education too late and, to pay rent and put food on the table, became a painter of miniatures. Auguste, Hippolyte’s elder brother by five years, set his heart on becoming a painter. When Hippolyte and his younger brother, Paul, also set that as their goal, the boy’s mother sternly objected. The privations of a painter’s profession were far too great to bear. One painter would be enough in the family.
Young Hippolyte and Paul spent most of their time engrossed in the activities of the military regiments quartered in Lyons. They studied their maneuvers by day and drew pictures of them by night. They admired the military paintings of Horace Vernet and Nicolas Charlet. To their mother’s dismay, the military drawings by the boys gained them a local notoriety, but she maintained her desire to have the boys enter the tailoring or silk merchant’s trade, professions that promised more financial security. In 1831, when the boys were twelve and eleven, they found a forceful advocate in the sculptor, Denis Foyatier, an old friend of the family. He was a local man with humble origins who had, through talent, training and hard work, become a successful sculptor. He made forceful arguments for letting the boys seriously study art, and his own life proved that earning a living at it was possible. Before he concluded his visit to Lyons, he saw the boys enrolled in a studio run by the painter André Magnin and the sculptor, Legendre-Héral. Hippolyte and Paul copied engravings and plaster casts as well as studies from life and the antique. In their free time they continued to draw military subjects. Both boys had learned the techniques of lithography from Auguste, and between the ages of fourteen and nineteen Hippolyte produced a number of lithographs, which he sold to supplement the family income. After the death of Magnin, Héral took the brothers to the animal and landscape painter Jean-Antoine Duclaux. Later, in 1827, the boys enrolled in the École de Saint Pierre, the École des Beaux-Arts of Lyons, where they studied under Pierre Révoil. A year later Hippolyte obtained the first prize for a drawing from life. The boys continued to help the family finances by drawing vignettes and lithographs or painting bonbon cases for local merchants. They saved what little they could for an eventual trip to Paris. There they would see great works of art and meet living masters who might be willing to teach eager pupils.
Paris and the Atelier of Ingres
Drawing includes three and a half quarters of the content of painting. If I were asked to put a up a sign over my door, I should inscribe it: School for Drawing, and I am sure that I should bring forth painters. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
The young men were poor, so in the fall of 1829, at the age of twenty, Hippolyte and his younger brother walked to Paris. In Paris they rented a cheap, unfurnished room, worked hard and ate little. They had left their home town with an introduction to the painter Louis Hersent from Révoil and the general in command of the garrison at Lyons. Before the brothers approached Hersent, they met Joseph Guichard, a compatriot from Lyons, who had entered Hersent’s studio, but transferred to that of Ingres, whom he considered to be a greater artist. He persuaded them of the superior merits of Ingres and they gave up seeking Hersent. In April they enrolled in the atelier of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, which had opened four years earlier. Flandrin wrote to his father that not only was Ingres considered a better painter than Hersent, but “his school is much better governed and quieter. He does not allow the detestable buffoonery which often makes it impossible for the best men to remain in a studio.” Hippolyte became a devoted friend and admirer of his great teacher. The impassioned, unwavering sincerity with which Ingres pursued his art made a deep and lasting impression on the young Flandrin. He abandoned his early desire to become a military painter and enthusiastically embraced the loftier goals of his master. They undoubtedly appealed to his own earnest character, for the themes of his art were never trivial and his conception of art and style would be consistent with those of Ingres. Flandrin was destined to become the finest pupil of Ingres, a distinction, however, that his humble mind would never admit.
Flandrin and his brother set to work under the keen eye of the master. Their task was to paint simple studies from the model, to learn to faithfully imitate nature and to gain the fundamental skills necessary to give form and life to their future work. The teaching of Ingres was characterized by the intense conviction that the true artist was unquestionably called to uphold what R. H. Ives Gammell described as a code of “austere visual morality.” This code was essentially rooted in the uncompromising study and representation of nature. Ingres declared, “It is in nature that you may discover the beauty which constitutes the dominant objective of painting. You must seek it there and not elsewhere.” Ingres and Flandrin were keenly interested in recording what they saw in the visible world, yet endeavoring to bring out the poetry and beauty of their subject as they interpreted it. They were not realists, for they disdained the mundane and ugly, but neither were they true classicists, although they admired the grace and beauty of ancient art. In 1857 Hippolyte wrote to his brother, Paul, and encouraged him to “always strive to get at the poetical meaning of nature, to find the most beautiful and most true side of everything. . . .” This exhortation reveals the central theme of Ingres’ teaching: truth to nature with beauty of interpretation for the purpose of expression.
While studying, the young Flandrin brothers lived in abject poverty. They had little food and almost no light and heat in their small apartment. During the cold months they went to bed early just to stay warm. As his study progressed Flandrin threw himself heart and soul into his new master’s higher conception of art. He quickly attached himself to his master with a profound admiration and respect, both as an artist and a man. The integrity of Ingres and his insistence on expressing both the truth and beauty of nature appealed to the truthfulness and simplicity of his own character. His friend, Vicomte Delaborde, a painter and writer who published a book of Flandrin’s letters, wrote therein that, “Those who knew Flandrin in his student days remember a young man with a gentle, dreamy expression of almost mystic character; invariably reserved in words, and altogether stamped with such a modest nobility of mind and manner, that one felt at once, after a fashion, overawed by his modesty and attracted by his sweetness.” An Italian model, fond of shouting insults at the students, stopped her tirade when she came to Flandrin and noted that, “handsome or ugly, he was Madonna-like in purity and truth.”
Flandrin was an exceptional student, foremost in the atelier of Ingres in both drawing skill and pictorial imagination. Encouraged by his teacher, he registered at the École des Beaux-Arts in September, 1829 and was admitted to the Académie, thereby becoming eligible to compete in the contests that could eventually lead to the Grand Prix de Rome competition. Beginning that month he entered in the competitions regularly, always finishing among the best. Ingres was pleased and, knowing the need of the two brothers, he gave them each twenty francs a month, half the cost of his instruction. After finishing their day’s work the boys read voraciously, diligently making up for past deficiencies in their education. History, poetry, the Classics, and the Scriptures fed Flandrin’s artistic aspirations and his faith. Meanwhile, he began preparing for the Prix-de-Rome competition.
Flandrin entered the contest for the Grand Prix-de-Rome in 1830. He passed the painted sketch competition, but was unsuccessful in the painted figure competition, disappointing both himself and Ingres. He decided to try again the following year. He worked in the atelier of Ingres in the morning and entered the contests at the Academy or studied ancient dress and customs the rest of the day. By the middle of April he had passed three of the preliminary competitions, those in perspective, attitude and composition. Flandrin won the medal in the composition contest. In the next competition, his painted figure, which he deemed the best, was voted last. He was, nevertheless, admitted into the final competition for the Roman prize. His finances were meager so he asked his brother, Auguste, to whom he had given his gold medal in composition, to sell it and send him the money. Auguste could not bear to sell it and, instead, sent his brother a small sum of his own money. Flandrin hesitated to accept the gift, but did so at the loving insistence of his brother. He used the money to begin a small work called Virgil’s Shepherds, which he would finish in Rome five years later. He failed to win the contest that year. In the April 1831 sketch contest, Flandrin did an interesting study of Cypselus Saved. The subject concerns the attempted murder of a 7th century B.C. child, destined to rule Corinth, by members of a deposed royal family. According to Herodotus, the newborn smiled at each of the men sent to kill him and none of them could do so. That is the moment that Flandrin chose to illustrate. The quick study shows his desire to compose with clarity and breadth in the Neo-Classic tradition of works such as The Death of Germanicus by Nicolas Poussin. This is one of the few surviving sketches that he painted while studying at the École. The sketch is countersigned on the bottom by Ingres.
During the winter of 1832 Flandrin began to suffer from the rheumatic afflictions that would torture him for the rest of his life. A cholera epidemic plagued the city when he won a medal in the Academy contests and finally became a contender for the Grand Prix de Rome competition. Before the contest began his poverty was so severe that he could not afford to buy supplies or pay model fees and he reluctantly decided to withdraw from the competition. When Ingres expressed great disappointment, for he was certain that Flandrin could win the prize, the young man resolved to endure any amount of personal privation and discomfort to compete. The subject that year was Theseus recognized by his father. Theseus was the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, but he had never known his father. Before Theseus was born Aegeus said to his wife, “If we shall have a son, when he is old enough tell him to lift this rock and take my sword and sandals from under it.” Then Aegeus placed both his sword and his sandals under a large boulder and left for Athens. This took place in a small town called Troezen, where Theseus grew into a strong young man. When his mother thought that it was time, she took Theseus to the large boulder and told him to lift it. Theseus lifted it as if it were a feather. She told him to take the sword and sandals and go to Athens. Aegeus had married Medea, a sorceress who had him under her power. With her powers Medea recognized Theseus and knew that he would get rid of her. She told Aegeus that Theseus had come to kill him and that she would give Theseus poisoned wine. Aegeus, not knowing that Theseus was his son, agreed. Aegeus invited Theseus to a banquet. When Theseus was just about to drink his wine Aegeus recognized the sword and threw the cup of wine to the floor.
When the contest began Flandrin was so ill that he could not walk without the support of his brother, who brought him to and from the small loge in which he worked. One of the other competitors was struck with cholera and died almost at once. Flandrin missed many days of work, but wrote home, “I will not be discouraged — at least I hope I shall not.” His love and respect for Ingres helped to motivate him and, at the end of June, he wrote with youthful zeal, “I must try to justify M. Ingres’ confidence by my picture, I must defend his doctrine and the credit of his school against men who are so prejudiced, that even if they saw the truth they would not acknowledge it for fear of condemning themselves. You see I have a weighty task upon my shoulders; God grant that I may be able to bear it. But if it should crush me, at least I shall have left nothing undone, and shall have used every effort.” He was disappointed that illness kept him from working as many days as his fellow competitors and from finishing his painting as well as he had hoped, but he was satisfied with his overall achievement.
Winning the Grand Prize
Flandrin had to wait for a month before anyone saw his painting and the jurors pronounced judgment. The paintings were exhibited and it was the consensus of both artists and public that his painting deserved the prize. Ingres praised the painting to his students. Four days later, the jury judged the works and Flandrin’s won the first prize. Aside from the obvious attempt to hide Theseus’ private parts with a standing rib roast, it is a marvelous painting by so young an artist. It shows his desire to design with grandeur and majesty and to create a style that is idealized, characterized by breadth of seeing and fullness of form. Flandrin was the first pupil of Ingres to win the Grand Prix and it caused a stir in the Parisian art world, bringing him more than the usual notoriety. After winning the prize Flandrin spent six weeks with his family in Lyons and then traveled to the Villa Medici to study for slightly more than five years.
The Trip to Rome
This was undoubtedly the most significant period in Flandrin’s artistic development. It was during his time of study in Italy that he first saw the work of those painters who were to most influence him in the future, some of the same painters whose work had inspired Ingres twenty-five years earlier: the art of Raphael, the School of Athens, the Disputá and, particularly, The Mass at Bolsena. This latter work exhibits the simplicity of expression and beauty of type that will eventually characterize Flandrin’s work, and he must have been attracted to it because he saw therein displayed his own aspirations and ideals. He admired the work of the Tuscan masters: Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel, and those of Fra Angelico in the Chapel of Nicholas V. These and the work of Domenichino and Cimabue were models to which he devoted serious thought and study; not in mere literal imitation (although he did make copies of their work), but rather learning to see and interpret nature with their sensitivity and skill—“beautiful nature,” as he wrote, “who queenly and supreme as she is, gives so freely to those who woo her with humble cravings.”
“Rome comprises everything necessary to make an artist happy,” he wrote to his family, “a glorious sky, a beautiful country, a fine type of men, grand monuments, and the most splendid pictures and sculptures.” His only sorrow was being separated from his brother, Paul. He began drawings from the antique and copies of Raphael’s Stanze decorations. He had to wait for several months to get his own studio because the student he was replacing had not finished his final painting. Horace Vernet, Director of the Academy, kindly offered to let him work in his studio, but Flandrin confessed to his brother that “it is so full of his pictures and concerns, and, in honest truth, those are so entirely different from what I want to do, that I cannot stay there long, still less work there.” Meanwhile, he painted portraits of Émile Signol and Jean-Louis-Nicolas Jaley, a fellow student finishing his time in Rome and about to return home. He kept aloof from many of the students and refrained from discussions with them about his artistic aspirations. His desire of combining truth to nature with beauty of style gave him a singleness of purpose that was not universally shared. “I have never had any discussion in the Academy, and hope not to have. Tell M. Ingres that the only people with whom I talk are himself, Raphael and Phidias. Words are not very effectual to convince in such a case; example goes a great deal further; let us try to argue by that means.” By the end of April 1833 Flandrin was finally settled in his studio, a twenty foot square work space next to his bedroom. On one of the panels of his studio he inscribed the words of Psalm 92: 4, “Thou, LORD, hast made me glad through Thy works, and I will rejoice in giving praise for the operation of Thy hands.”
A short time later Flandrin and a friend visited the studio of Friedrich Overbeck. Many have claimed that Overbeck and the Nazarenes exerted a profound influence on Flandrin, but his comments in reference to Overbeck’s most ambitious and celebrated painting, the Triumph of Religion in the Arts, are enlightening. “It is most beautiful and well-conceived,” he writes, “but Overbeck uses means of expression not his own [Overbeck was then considered to be the modern Raphael]; he altogether takes the Old Master’s garb—he observes nature, but by his own confession he hardly ever has it actually before his eyes when working . . . . he aims less at painting than at expressing his thoughts as though writing. To my mind he is wrong, for if he intends to make use of painting as a way of writing his thoughts, the more true and correct his medium the better the rendering will be. But we came away most pleasantly impressed, talking of the religious impression which Overbeck knows how to give his works, and which always conveys a calm cheerfulness.”
The young Flandrin was quick to appreciate the merit in Overbeck’s work, the sincere religious feeling, fine conception and grand design, but he recognized the danger of losing touch with nature. He reacted against what Ingres abhorrently called chic, painting by rote with little or no reference to nature, a way of working that could easily degenerate into characterless and artificial mannerism. One should not merely paint pastiches of the Old Masters, imitating their form and method without adapting their great lessons of visual truth to the requirements of the present. Four centuries earlier, Leonardo noted that periods of artistic decline were brought about when artists neglected the study of nature and began imitating the work of other artists and warned that, “Those who take for their standard anyone but nature—the mistress of all masters—weary themselves in vain.” Artists who desire to follow the grand tradition of breadth and beauty must continually go to the richness of nature as an inexhaustible source of variety. This, together with a fine style for the sake of beauty and expression, and a noble conception was, for Flandrin, the foundation of great art.
The pensioners at the Villa Medici came from various artistic disciplines: painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and music. The painters were required to paint small portraits of each other and of the other students as well. Most of these were hung on the academy walls as a record of former pensioners. Flandrin painted several such portraits, the most notable being of the composer, Amboise Thomas, who became the artist’s lifelong friend. Severe and monumental, the portrait emphasizes the intense seriousness of the future composer of Mignon. The breadth and simplicity of the drawing and modeling focus our attention on the composer’s character. The studied, simple design and somber coloring, so like the temperaments of both men, make this a poignant homage to their mutual friendship, diligent study together and youthful idealism. In the evenings, after a hard day’s work, Thomas would play his own compositions and the music of Beethoven and Mozart for the other students. When Thomas left the Villa Medici after his time there was finished, Flandrin was saddened to be parted from his friend and wrote, “He taught me to understand the rare beauty of music. Everyone loves and esteems him.”
The French government provided Prix de Rome winners with an allowance of eight hundred francs for the trip to Rome and a yearly stipend for five years of one thousand crowns for their personal expenses and those incurred in the execution of their work. They received free room and board at the Villa Medici. Students could draw from life for two hours every day. In return, the government required the students to complete a series of exercises by which their progress could be evaluated. However, it was often difficult for the students to live and still do the required work on this stipend, for painting is a very expensive vocation. After enumerating his expenses for tailor, shoemaker, laundress, light, wood, canvas, and so forth, Flandrin writes, “One is very comfortable at the Academy, one wants for nothing, but nevertheless one has not means to get as many models as one requires. All the fellows who do anything of consequence for their envois spend five or six hundred francs more than their pension, and that is what I am unable to do.”
Although they varied occasionally, the following exercises (envois, work sent back to the Academy in Paris) were generally required of the winners in history painting: during the first two years a life-size figure painted from life, a finished drawing based on a painting by a master and a drawing from the antique; for the third year another life-size figure painting and a painted sketch of a freely-chosen subject taken from mythology or history; in the fourth year a life-size copy of a painting by a great master or the painted or drawn fragments of at least three figures taken from a fresco or from an original work by a great painter of the student’s choosing with the approval of the director. In the case of monumentally scaled works the copy must be at least life size. Students also had to complete a painting or drawing of an original composition containing at least twelve figures and measuring no less than 26 inches each dimension. In the fifth year students had to execute a history painting of a freely chosen subject not to exceed 13 feet 3 inches in each dimension. Since the students had already proven their competence, they were free to do their own work and to travel so long as they did the required exercises.
To his great delight, Flandrin’s brother, Paul, joined him in Rome during January of 1834. The two brothers were the closest of friends. In all the history of art I am aware of no other sibling relationship as tender and devoted as that of these two brothers. A touching double portrait drawn by Paul while they were together at the Villa Medici perfectly expresses their character and camaraderie. Paul, who was always ready to acknowledge the superior ability of his older brother (he referred to himself as Hippolyte’s “shadow”), places himself in the rear although, because of his more extroverted personality, he faces the viewer, as if to say, “behold my brother.” Hippolyte, characteristically shy, melancholy and never seeking his own acclaim, is seen in profile, looking down in quiet introspection. No finer characterizations of them exist. There is a self-portrait in oil by Hippolyte in the same position. Perhaps the profile also serves to hide the drooping lid of the artist’s right eye.
Paul’s arrival came while his brother was working on his first envois. The subject was Polites, Son of Priam, Observes the Movements of the Greeks Toward Troy. Flandrin described the work to his brother: “The subject is from the Iliad. At the moment when the Grecian army gathered to make a fresh assault on the town, Polites, Priam’s youngest son, trusting to his agility, ventured alone among the Trojans to remain without the wall, and seated on the tomb of the ancient Æsetes, he watched the Greeks.” About this time Flandrin’s right eye began to cause trouble, forcing him to cease work for long periods to give it rest. He was unsatisfied with his envois, saying that he could correct its faults only by painting another picture. He sent it to Paris in the fall. The painting was praised more than he expected, although some critics felt that the figure was too natural and individual and not idealized enough. However, the figure of the young Polites is very beautiful. The drawing and modeling exhibit a refined breadth and beauty of style. Flandrin’s art was beginning to mature under the influence of the great masters whom he admired.
Three years later Flandrin triumphantly addressed the criticism that his figure of Polites was too individual with his study of a Young Man Seated on a Rock by the Sea. Here he created the quintessential academic figure study, a sublime icon of ideal masculine beauty. This work, the most famous of his paintings today, is notable for its simple, monumental gesture and beauty of arabesque. The drawing and characterization are beautifully conceived and stylized. The modeling of the form is done with great subtlety and refinement. The coloring is delicate and the paint handling suave and sophisticated. The young Flandrin’s maturing artistic sensibilities raised this mandatory fourth year “figure study” into the realm of graceful and poetic art. It set a standard for artistry and execution that thereafter was rarely, if ever, equaled.
In 1835 Ingres replaced Horace Vernet as the Director of the French Academy in Rome. For Flandrin the reunion with his teacher was bittersweet. Personally, he was elated to be regaining his “dear master and his good advice, . . . ” Professionally, he believed it was “a misfortune for art,” as Ingres had to leave before he executed two large public commissions in Paris, a renowned location where his work could be viewed by many people and positively influence French art. Nevertheless, in helping to form the artists of the future, Ingres was profoundly influencing French art.
Flandrin began his second large envois shortly after he finished Polites, in the hope of having it presentable upon the arrival of Ingres and his wife at the Villa Medici. He took the subject from Dante’s Purgatorio. Flandrin received little education in his youth, but read diligently while studying with Ingres in Paris. “Tardy as this self-education may have been, and incomplete in many ways,” wrote Delaborde, “it nevertheless resulted in a reality and depth on certain subjects which were not always attained by several years’ routine at college. . . . I doubt whether it be possible to fathom the mysteries of Dante’s depth of thought with more penetration than did Flandrin; or whether any professor of literature ever appreciated the incomparable beauties of the Divine Comedy more truly than he did.”
Flandrin’s painting is a powerful depiction of Dante and Virgil in Purgatory, Visiting the Envious Men Struck with Blindness. Dante bends over the huddled suffering figures, offering them consolation. The subject is taken directly from the Divine Comedy and Flandrin treats the subject with quiet and sympathetic dignity. His friend, the priest Paul Lacuria, wrote to him about this painting. Flandrin responded to some of his comments: “Looking at is as a whole, you say that you don’t recognize Hell, or the expression of fear which is so prevailing in Dante. But here you are mistaken; it is Purgatory that is treated, and the predominant feeling which I have tried to express by Dante’s action, is that of consoling the suffering souls. As to the criticism that there is a lack of power in the expression, I entirely agree with it. Dante’s poetry is quite another thing. It has often made me afraid with a sublime fear; but to convey that one needs something far beyond the talent of a man who can see, or fancies that he sees, what is true beauty at intervals as transient as lightning, and then grows lost in the analysis of form, tone, and all that is purely mechanical. It is the trouble which the mechanical part is to me which involves so poor a result in expression. I feel and confess it, and yet (perhaps I may be mistaken) it does not seem to me a reason for avoiding difficult subjects, and that because one never shakes off pettiness of handling so well as when subject to a predominant thought. I think that ought to enable one to improve far more than aimless studies. To my mind, the more one asks the more one gets; ask but little and you get—nothing!”
Flandrin endeavored to explain to Lacuria the very practical problems with which all fine traditional artists struggle, that of having the visual and technical expertise to adequately express the subject’s intellectual and emotional character. The primary means for this expression is drawing. After that one needs expertise in design and, allied to that, knowledge and taste in the selection and harmony of color. Without great skill in these areas, one’s ability to express oneself in the great language of art is compromised. Flandrin, like all great artists, was struggling to learn the language of painting, to gain the experience and skill necessary to forcefully express his ideas. His effort was recognized and he received a second class gold medal for his painting. The painting was exhibited in Lyons and was purchased, as Flandrin hoped, by the municipality for 3,500 francs. They also purchased his figure of Euripides for 1,000 francs.
By the end of September 1835 Flandrin had begun another envois, the Young Shepherd, a study of a single figure seated against a tree. He had also started a commission for the Cathedral of Nantes. He describes the work to his brother, Auguste. “The subject is fine—St. Clair restoring sight to the blind. The scene is at Nantes, where St. Clair was Bishop in the third century, and my canvas is nine feet high. The Bodiniers arranged it. They proposed to me to paint the picture, and I accepted with great pleasure, so as to do something that has a destination. As to the price, we must say nothing of that. I am doing fifteen figures, the size of life, for a thousand francs, pretty much what the expenses will be—but what would you have?” The expressive gestures and rhythmic linear flow which characterize this work are reminiscent of his great predecessors Giotto and Massaccio, yet with a verisimilitude that arrests the viewer and involves them in the depicted action. Flandrin would later refine these qualities in his decorations for the churches of Saint Vincent-de-Paul and Saint Germain-des-Prés. When Ingres saw the finished work he was very pleased with it and warmly embraced his young pupil. “Well, mon ami,” he said, “art is not lost, and I have not been useless!” Flandrin recalled, “I shall never forget that minute.” The painting won a first class gold medal when it was exhibited in 1837.
The process employed by Flandrin in the creation of his works was typical procedure for creating successful paintings of this kind. It was not only a part of the academic tradition; it was essential for the realization of his artistic conceptions. There was no room for haphazard preparation, hoping that the work would somehow be successful. Every element in the work needed to be carefully planned. Nothing could be left to “chance” or what might be mistakenly called “inspiration.”
The first task was to jot down the conception. This search for a suitable pictorial expression was usually done on a small scale, without the use of models. Once the idea had been conceptualized he made separate studies from nature to accumulate enough information to proceed to the full scale planning stage of the painting. The gesture of each figure must be established in relation to its own action and the action or reaction of those around it. Once the gestures were decided upon, finished studies of the figures were executed. Separate studies were necessary for heads and hands and clothing or draperies. If necessary, studies for the environment, such as landscape or architecture, would be made. Often props needed to be gathered or manufactured. Finally, the studies were assembled and combined into a cartoon or full-scale drawing of the entire work. Color studies of the whole or of individual parts were then be made and he proceeded with the actual painting. Throughout the process Flandrin was continually attempting to achieve a result that elevated the subject above the mundane and created a world that was aesthetically beautiful and emotionally moving. The many fine drawings and studies that he executed for his works attests to his unwavering effort to do this.
Flandrin’s Final Envois
Flandrin’s final painting as a student, Jesus Christ and the Little Children, was his most ambitious and accomplished. He was very reserved about it and made all of his fellow students promise not to see it until it was finished. He wanted to be uninfluenced by comments or criticism other than those of his brother, Paul. He wanted to use another student, Dominique Papety, to model for the hands, and did so only after the fellow agreed to pose blindfolded. Flandrin described the work: “I have fixed upon a Scriptural subject I have always loved, and which M. Ingres approves highly. I take the moment when the Jewish women brought their children to Jesus Christ that He might bless them, the disciples repulsing them, and Jesus rebuking the disciples saying, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ I can imagine a wonderfully beautiful scene; the grand meaning and feeling stamping our Lord’s words afford a magnificent opening, but it is an alarming thing to undertake.”
During the year that Flandrin worked on this painting much of Italy was plagued by cholera. Rome, as well, was in danger of outbreak. Flandrin was weak with illness and depression and worked only during intervals of improved health. To escape the cholera, he and some fellow students left Rome for several months, a move that he regretted when he saw the devastation wrought by the plague in outlying areas. When he reached Padua, however, he was consoled by the works that he saw there. “At Padua we devoured the Titians and Mantegnas, but, above all, the Giottos in Santa Maria del Arena. What a jewel that chapel is! What soft harmony among the Titians.” At Mantua he saw the frescoes of Giulio Romano in the Palazzo del Te. Romano had been an assistant in Raphael’s studio and had worked on the frescoes in the Vatican loggias. In Raphael’s Stanze decorations in the Vatican he had painted a group of figures in The Fire in the Borgo. “I was surprised, amazed,” Flandrin writes. “Certainly in some of them he comes out like an old master.” Flandrin then returned to Rome to face his sad departure.
Flandrin finished Jesus Christ and the Little Children shortly before his time in Rome was over. In this eloquent composition we see that he had begun to assimilate the lessons of the quatroccento Italians and of Raphael and Poussin. It is the culmination of a gifted artist’s student years. In the stately gestures, the bold spotting of the values, the beautiful and complex interplay of lines around and through the ensemble, the frieze-like distribution of the figures within a shallow space, the gentle and expressive drawing and the impressive design of the draperies, we see in sophisticated seed form what will become the hallmarks of the mature Flandrin’s art. In the works that he did at the Villa Medici Flandrin had succeeded in synthesizing the time-honored tradition of beauty with conformity to nature as taught by Ingres. He had portrayed on canvas the likeness of life’s visible truths with the refinements of artistic style and perception acquired by studying the finest works of ancient art and the Italian Renaissance. In the twenty-five years following his departure from Rome Flandrin would develop and amplify these lessons in a wide variety of superb portraits and in murals on the walls of five great churches.
Flandrin’s Return to France
His student years completed, Flandrin returned to Lyons to visit his family before he moved permanently to Paris. His father had died shortly before he left Rome and he consoled his mother and his family. He found a studio in Paris and in November had settled in. Paris was dirty and Flandrin longed for Rome, but he threw himself into his work. Jesus Christ and the Little Children was exhibited in the Louvre to great admiration. Ary Scheffer, an accomplished portrait and religious painter whose work Flandrin admired, praised the painting, as did Paul Delaroche. Flandrin wanted his art to be successful because he was convinced that his artistic principles were true, but he disliked the praise and attention that often accompanied success. Throughout his career he avoided everything that exalted himself and shunned the worldly eminence that most men desire. He was always quick to attribute his success to God’s grace and the teaching of his beloved master, Ingres, the “one I can never admire or love sufficiently.” Flandrin was equally quick to rejoice in the success of his brothers, especially Paul, whose landscapes were filled with poetry and feeling. What he disliked was the success and praise given by those in authority to work that he thought was mediocre. He wrote to Auguste that “they buy the most rubbishy works, and shower prizes, croix d’honneur and the like, upon them. That’s what comes of being well backed.” Flandrin and his brother established themselves in a house in Paris, and there he lived until the end of his life.
It is not doubt which will teach men, it is affirmation of the truth; and for this reason, I will take no part in a teaching which is without principle or belief. Hippolyte Flandrin
Flandrin’s decorative works must be seen within complex battleground of conflicting religious and cultural issues that influenced the production of religious art throughout the 19th century. As a decorator, the issue that most clearly affected Flandrin concerned the appropriate style for decorative work with religious themes in the Roman Catholic Church. Broadly speaking, the controversy was polarized around the conflicting ideas of hieraticism and naturalism. Hieraticism was based on the prevailing conception of the Byzantine pictorial tradition that was expressed most powerfully by the mosaics at Revenna. It was characterized by equilibrium, formality and symbolism. Its proponents felt that true spirituality was best expressed by an artistic style that displayed calm, permanence and simplicity—formal qualities that suggested the “conditions of eternity.” Flandrin’s temperament, religious convictions, training, and familiarity with Italian church decoration made him sympathetic to these principles. The Ultramontanes (supporters of the authority of the Pope in all matters) emphatically espoused such a style, and evidence suggests that Flandrin shared Ultramontane convictions. During his creative career, Flandrin’s decorations came to exemplify this so-called hieratic style and formed an influential body of work around which this controversy would rage.
Flandrin considered his decorations his most important work. Without reserve he invested his artistic heart into their noble conception and admirable execution. He dearly loved the beauty of the visible world. In his decorations he clothed his remarkable perception of it with a monumental style that expressed both his artistic ideals and his understanding of religious and historical truth. Flandrin believed that his subjects conveyed the truth; they were not a fabric of myth and legend. He conceived and executed his work in a spirit of reverence and deep devotion. According to his friend, the Bishop of Nîmes, Flandrin’s faith inspired him “with a conscientious love of art, so that painting was no mere profession in Flandrin’s eyes, but a ministry, for the functions of which he prepared himself as an evangelist going forth . . . . Flandrin sought to preach after his own manner, and to him painting became eloquence, wherewith he uttered a magnificent profession of faith on the walls of God’s temples. . . . Heart and intellect combined in him to direct his talent . . . in Hippolyte the artist and the Christian were absolutely one soul, his compositions and his moral graces sprung from a common source. He himself revered and worshiped that which he invited others to adore.” Between the time that Flandrin returned from Rome in June of 1838 until his final journey back there in 1863, he became the most eminent French religious decorator of his century. His simple and rigorous devotion to his faith and his art earned him the title of the French Fra Angelico.
The Church of Saint-Séverin
In 1839, a year after returning to Paris, Flandrin received a commission to paint the Chapel of Saint John in the Church of Saint-Séverin. The commission was secured by his friend, the sculptor and medal engraver Jacques-Édouard Gatteaux, who had won the Prix-de-Rome in 1809. Flandrin was to do the work speedily and for little remuneration. No doubt his mind was filled with memories of the great works he had seen during his years in Italy and, like all fledgling artists of talent, he was eager to put his years of study and training to the test. At the end of December, Flandrin describes the problems encountered in the work to his brother, Auguste: “My cartoons occupy me greatly with all the necessary study for them, to say nothing of all the painters and masons one has to direct. All this too in about five hours’ daylight, and such daylight too! Paris is a gutter-a very swamp-through which one must paddle to pay visits, and comply with the exigencies of this ridiculous world. (Dear Rome, where art thou?)” He laments the time spent working with the authorities in charge of the project and mentions his financial worries, for “they will advance me nothing for the Chapel until the cartoons are done, and even then the money paid in will be swallowed up at once by the work-people, who are already putting in their claims.”
From his earliest days as a student Flandrin had been afflicted by poor health. Both in Paris and in Rome he repeatedly suffered from rheumatism and fevers that left him exhausted and unable to work. After his student years he was seldom in good health. The cold, damp environment of the churches in which he labored aggravated his rheumatic condition. His poor health was abetted by the physically demanding nature of the decorator’s art and he was often unable to work for varying lengths of time. Flandrin’s eyes also troubled him. He had always been subject to a squint, for which he underwent surgery in 1840. The surgery was ineffective, his squint remained, and he suffered almost total loss of sight in his right eye, a condition that plagued him for the rest of his life. As he aged, dark days working in gloomy churches strained his already weak eyes, forcing him to periodically interrupt his work in order to recover.
After almost two years of labor the chapel was opened to the public in April of 1841, and Flandrin’s work engendered great admiration. The four paintings, rather Raphaelesque in nature, are seminal works in Flandrin’s stylistic development as a decorator. They reveal the conscientious effort of a serious young artist to treat his noble themes with the utmost sincerity within the context of the historical tradition in which he had so recently been immersed. The calm and dignified simplicity and severity of these works embody, in seminal form, the essentials of the hieratic style and bridge the gap between his student work and the more mature works which were to follow. When I saw them in 1974 the church was dark and wet and the paintings were in very poor condition. This can be seen in the photographs. They were cleaned and restored in 1983-84. The figures in the Last Supper are distinguished in every way. The pencil studies for this work exhibit Flandrin’s strength as a draftsman in the tradition of his master. The subject is reduced to its essentials and the figures, unlike those in Leonardo’s famous work, are calm and immobile conveying, to those who embraced hieratic principles, the formal qualities signifying eternity. John, portrayed leaning on Christ’s bosom, is a particularly touching figure.
The Sanctuary of Saint Germain-des-Prés
In May of 1842 Flandrin began the first of three large projects in the Church of Saint Germain-des-Prés in Paris. The project would occupy him until the end of 1844. Jacques-Édouard Gatteaux also helped to secure this commission. However, tragedy struck as he began his work. At the end of August 1842 Flandrin’s elder brother, Auguste, died. He was the one who had initially motivated him to become an artist. Flandrin wrote mournfully to Ambroise Thomas: “Now that the first stunning grief is past, if you only knew how deep our grief is! Everything seems to feed and increase it. It was so good to be three, and when there are only two, one seems so near being left alone! Sad indeed for the one left last! Forgive this outpour of weakness, but there it is, in the bottom of my heart. The one who seemed so strong, so full of life, has been taken so suddenly from us.” Shortly thereafter, his grief was alleviated slightly by his engagement to Aimée Ancelot. Before the wedding he again wrote to Ambroise Thomas, “The more I know of her who is about to be my wife, the more I love her, and rejoice.” On May 10th, 1843, the day before the wedding, he writes to the same friend: “I am very happy, I am just winning my prize . . . I find even more than I could have dared to hope for! She is charming, so gentle and tender. Rejoice with me! Please come rather early, for the organist is not in Paris, and if you come at a quarter to twelve or half-past eleven, you can feel your ground [for Thomas was to be the organist at the wedding]. Try to remember some of the beautiful bits we used to be so fond of, the Ave Verum, etc.” Flandrin and Aimée were married on May 11, 1843.
Flandrin’s heart was in his work and he repeatedly thanks God for having given him the opportunity of devoting himself to religious painting. The tenor of his thoughts, always calmly devout, seems to have become increasingly so under the influence of his sacred task. In the two large paintings on the walls of the sanctuary of Saint Germain-de-Prés, The Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem and The Ascent to Calvary, we see that Flandrin’s gifts as a decorator had come to full fruition. Based on sources such as Giotto’s paintings in the Arena Chapel, Flandrin conceived his solemn depiction as a frieze of figures within a shallow space, the figures, landscape and architecture form large patterns against a gilt background. The warm coloring of the paintings is in perfect harmony with the gold of the gilding and color of the surrounding stone. The drawing throughout is firm in outline and simple and solid in form. The gestures are calm and stabile emphasizing, as in all of his work, the spiritual as well as the emotional significance of the events. The linear arabesques and tonal patterns are effectively interwoven, balancing and unifying the ensemble. The stately beauty and simplicity with which he arranges the draperies is a hallmark of Flandrin’s mature style and is one of the chief delights in his decorative work. The artist has succeeded in creating a dignified and pleasing balance between decorative lines and tonal patterns on the one hand and natural verisimilitude on the other. Flandrin was beginning to synthesize the vigor of ancient art and the dignity of Ravenna with the visual realism of the 19th century. William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, two charter members of England’s Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, made a pilgrimage to Paris in 1949 and concluded that these two paintings were the most “perfect” works that they had seen in their lives. Above these large murals are three tiers of decorative work. The first contains figures representing theological and cardinal virtues. The second contains a large central personage (the consecrator and founder of the abbey) flanked by significant figures in the history of the Church of Saint Germain-de-Prés. The third is a small space containing decorative symbols.
The Choir of Saint Germain-de-Prés
From 1846 to 1848 Flandrin painted the twelve Apostles in the choir of Saint Germain-de-Prés. Artists will be interested a letter that he wrote to his brother, Paul, while working on these paintings. It highlights the problem that a decorator faces when trying to integrate the intellectual and philosophic ideas he wishes to express with the decorative aspects of purely pictorial design. “I am quite worried by an idea which came into my head yesterday,” he admits. “Remembering that there is no really old tradition as to the color of the Apostle’s garments, I thought I would make them all white. You know one day you said something about it, so all night long I thought or dreamed about it. These twelve men uniformly white would be much more imposing, and have a finer effect than broken up into different tones, and moreover they are in Heaven, around the Throne of the Lamb. Morally it is far finer, but would the eye be as well satisfied as the mind? Would the whites harmonize with the whole tone of the decorations? That is what I wanted to find out today, by painting in Saint Matthew white, whom you saw violet. Unluckily it was not quite dry, and the under tints transpired somewhat, and consequently the white is not brilliant enough to enable me to judge definitely as to the effect. . . . I consulted M. Ingres and M. Gatteaux, and both answered ‘Don’t do it.’ But notwithstanding, after a night of indecision, I decided on the white, and have now repainted three figures. MM. Ingres and Gatteaux came to Saint Germain, and both exclaimed ‘Bravo! It is really much better so!’ entirely approving my determination; so now my mind is at rest, and I am getting on.” This incident shows Flandrin’s willingness to follow his own artistic sensibilities in spite of advice to the contrary from personages no less authoritative than his own teacher and another Prix de Rome winner.
Among other works that Flandrin finished at this time (I844-45) was a picture painted for the Prince de Berghes for his mortuary chapel at Saint Martory, near Saint Gaudens. It was a depiction of the Mater Dolorosa (Sorrowful Mother). Flandrin took as the theme of his picture the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “O all ye that pass by behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” He described it as “the Blessed Virgin at the foot of the Cross, offering the instruments of our Saviour’s Passion to Christians as a subject of meditation.” Flandrin painted it during the cold, dark days when he could not work at Saint Germain-de-Prés. Perhaps the best tribute that could have been paid to this picture was involuntarily offered by Queen Marie-Amélie de Bourbon, whose mother’s heart, still broken by the sudden death of the Duc d’Orleans, was transfixed by the beauty and sympathy of Flandrin’s representation of the Mother of Sorrows. On first seeing the picture in the Exhibition of 1845, she burst into tears and stood gazing at it in mournful contemplation. It was no mere artistic effect that did this, for Flandrin’s life was in keeping with the subjects on which he worked. In his first study, the Virgin is seated holding the crown of thorns, her eyes raised to Heaven in an attitude of pathos and suffering. The drawing of the head is very simple and beautiful. In the final painting, sober and monumental, he depicted her standing, confronting the viewer with the nails and crown of thorns. He thereby involves the onlooker in her sorrow and entreats them to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice and to repent and believe the good news of forgiveness and comfort.