By Stephen Gjertson
The Portrait Painter
Flandrin was a prolific portrait painter. In an age that boasted many fine portrait painters he became one of the most esteemed and sought-after. This fact, however, eventually proved to be more of an irritation to him than a blessing. His portrait career began modestly with relatives of fellow Prix-de-Rome winners and, as his reputation grew, ended with some of the most wealthy and influential people of the Second Empire. Most of his portraits were executed during those times when either his poor health or the dismal weather prevented him from working on the decorative projects with which, as an artist, he was primarily interested. On the practical side, portrait painting provided needed income, a way to “keep the pot boiling,” as he admitted. The large decorative commissions, although more artistically challenging and rewarding were, for the most part, not very lucrative, and painting portraits was necessary to stabilize his finances and enable him to continue his decorative work.
When we view the best of Flandrin’s portraits we can be grateful for the circumstances that led to their creation. Their beauty elicited the following praise from the art critic and novelist Champfleury: “When you see one of these tranquil and reflective works, you then understand that Flandrin is, after Ingres, the greatest portrait painter of our time.” In his portraits Flandrin carried forward the principles of drawing and design taught to him by Ingres, infusing them with his own lyricism and charm. As an artist, those things in nature that were permanent impressed him and he endeavored to perfect these observations in his work. For Flandrin, nature was above all else “calm.” The shifting effects of light and color that excited the Impressionists were of little interest to him. Like Leonardo, he felt that those things that were most artistically significant could be primarily expressed through form. “It is by drawing that life and beauty are expressed,” he asserted. “Is not everything grand in art dependent on good drawing?” In this he echoes the great dictum of Ingres: “Drawing is the integrity of art.” Flandrin loved color as well, but not in the same way as an impressionist. He considered it “a garment” with which to beautify and enhance the drawing, and he certainly perceived it in nature. Like Ingres, he believed that a true draftsman would find the proper colors with which to clothe his forms. In his decorations he sought harmonious combinations of color that were appropriate to the subject and pleasing to the eye. That the color of his portraits is more natural and observed from life than most of his non-impressionist contemporaries is evident in his lovely and charming, Portrait of a Young Lady.
Flandrin endeavored to paint that which was true to him in the broadest visual sense. He was not concerned with the “endless refinements and insipid prettinesses” of either form or color which distracted from those larger truths that he observed in nature, and which he considered to be indispensable in work of the highest order. This approach to picture making governed his eye and hand as he viewed nature and sought to capture on canvas that which he perceived as having lasting significance and beauty.
Many of Flandrin’s portraits are untraced and await rediscovery, but there are fine examples that may be seen today. Several of his female portraits may be suggested as exemplary. They display the artist’s beautiful drawing, breadth of vision and skillful design. Their charm is as much a reflection of the gentle character of the artist as they are a response to the character of the sitters. The portrait of his wife, Aimée, whom he married in 1843, is a fine example of his work at its most Ingresque. Perhaps as a tribute to his teacher, he chose a gesture that resembles in reverse the pose of the Comtesse d’Haussonville, which Ingres painted the previous year. In her left hand she holds a red carnation, symbol of steadfast love. In the background to her right is a richly decorated Louis-Philippe casket surmounted by a statue of Minerva and various pieces of pottery. To the right a 14th century Florentine or Sienese crucifixion hangs on the wall. In this very personal work Flandrin pays tribute to the things of this world that he most loves and enjoys. It was this portrait, along with several others, that evoked the praise of Champfleury quoted above.
In 1850 Flandrin painted a superb portrait of two brothers, Jean-Baptiste and René -Charles Dassy. It is difficult to compose portraits of two people in the same painting because the principles of design require a single center of interest. One person must usually be tactfully subordinated to the other. Here Flandrin exquisitely designs them into a single group, unifying them within a beautiful outside shape. The lines of the arms pull the figures together and the spotting and arrangement of the values balance the ensemble and keep the eye moving around the canvas, yet always returning to the heads. Jean, on the left (age 23), carries gloves and a walking stick. René, on the right (age 25), wears an embroidered black velvet suit in the exotic à la Grec mode inspired by the Greek war of independence (1821–32).
The Comtesse Maison, painted two years later, is another striking portrait. The placement of the sitter within the boundaries of the canvas, her eyes on a line that forms a square within the rectangular format, creates a riveting effect. A subtle contraposto animates the figure’s gesture. The placement of the hands, the left one dominant and graceful, keep the eyes of the viewer circulating around the canvas. The folds of the dress are designed with as much care and skill as Ingres lavished on his paintings. The accuracy and breadth of drawing and modeling are characteristic of Flandrin’s best work. The sitter is portrayed naturally, with little of the excessive stylizations that drain the character from the heads in some of Ingres’ female portraits. The neutral color harmony is enlivened by the bright accents of the red shawl and the blue hair ribbons. He retains the sitter’s character while obtaining an exquisitely beautiful breadth and simplicity of modeling.
The portrait of Mlle. Mathilde Maison, sister of the Comtesse Maison, is a simple and very agreeable portrait of a young woman holding a carnation. It created quite a stir when it was exhibited at the salon of 1859. At once dubbed “the young girl with the carnation,” it precipitated the burdensome back-swing of the double-edged sword of fame. Already fatigued by overwork, Hippolyte lamented to his brother: “. . . My life becomes more and more harassing. In addition to the old tasks which more than filled it, I am now a la mode! As I told you before, the success — absurd, because it was beyond bounds — of two portraits has brought about this glut of applications. I have refused at least one hundred fifty since the last Exhibition, but there are certain princes, ministers, etc., who demand, or command, with a persistence which drives me to despair, and to whom I submit with so bad a grace, that I am visibly dwindling away. It is finished, I have ceased to be a painter! Farewell to study, and to that delightful hope of improvement that kindles all one’s vigor and strength. This sort of good fortune crushes me, and I wish I knew how to get free from it, of which I have no hope! And yet, if even that were all! . . .”
To understand Flandrin’s attitude it is necessary to realize that, for him, the realm of art was hierarchical. This hierarchy formed an intrinsic part of academic theory and was based on the social importance and beneficence of a work’s subject. Although there were variations, the general categories of painting were commonly listed according to their value in this order: religious, ethical, allegorical, historical, portraits of significant persons, genre and contemporary life, portraits of ordinary persons, landscapes and marines, and still life. Like most artists, Flandrin needed and welcomed portrait commissions, especially of “significant persons,” but to be burdened with so many that he felt obliged to do was a vexation, as they kept him from continuing the work that he felt was more significant—his decorations. Nevertheless, despite his frustration over this oppressive crush of work, his integrity demanded that he give uncompromising attention to every task, and some of his finest portraits were done after the salon of 1859.
The painting of Mlle Zoé d’Aubermesnil is one of Flandrin’s most charming female portraits. It displays all of the qualities that make him a superior portrait painter. The dreamy expression of her rather homely face is rendered in an exceptionally refined and delicate manner, “seen,” if you will, with the intention of bringing out all of the attractive and sympathetic qualities of his model, both in form and color. The head, arms and hands are rendered with breadth and grace, yet they retain the character of the sitter. The design is more complex than many of his portraits and is especially successful. The oval of the face is repeated on a smaller scale by the pearl necklace and on a larger scale by the oval of the shoulders, extended arms and folded hands. The accessories provide additional interest of line. tone and color. A 17th century Flemish tapestry provides a rich and colorful background in this delightful portrait.
The Church of Saint Paul at Nîmes
Flandrin’s next commission was decorating the Church of Saint Paul at Nîmes. In the autumn of 1847 Hippolyte and Paul went to Nîmes to study the ground on which they were to work and to make the necessary preparations. “We are in a little hotel, where some good people take ample care of us, but I have been terribly disappointed on going to see the Church and the preparatory works, which are very far from what they ought to be. The scaffolding is miserable, and must be put up afresh, and the walls are badly prepared. It is all very annoying.” A year later, after a short visit to see his wife and two children in Lyons, Flandrin took up his quarters at Nîmes. He was not generally attracted by the place, but the clear blue sky of the South reminded him of his beloved Rome. His assistants on this project were his brother, Paul, his student and collaborator, Louis Lamothe (who was later the teacher of Edgar Degas), and another pupil of Ingres, his friend Paul Balze. This commission was a particularly demanding task. The Revolution of 1848 disturbed Nîmes, always politically restless, and Flandrin was prepared for possible serious interruptions; but after some “red and socialist banquets,” which produced a little surface commotion, the town returned to normal, and was quiet enough. Flandrin writes eagerly to Ambroise Thomas for intelligence as to the new constitution and the general attitude of Paris, saying that he and his fellow-labourers, engrossed from morning ’till night in their work, and hidden in the church, saw nobody and had no means of knowing what was going on in the world they had left. For more than a month, Hippolyte says, they had not received a letter informing them of the situation in Paris. On Dec. 15, 1848, Flandrin wrote to his to his friend and fellow Prix-de-Rome winner, Victor Baltard, “In spite of the delight of a work we rejoice in, we are keenly alive to our isolation and the separation from our friends. I can hardly believe that it is only two months since we left Paris. The time, as a whole, seems horribly long, although weeks go by like days, and days like hours. In order to get back as soon as possible to you all, I use them to the best of my power. Although the most splendid weather tempted us, and we should have liked to go and enjoy the glorious light and its effects on the rocks and the fair vegetation of the South, we resisted heroically. We have steadily given all working days up to work, so that we are really taking shape, and I am somewhat surprised myself to see how much we have been able to do in six weeks. . . .”
The crew at the church did not enjoy being away from home and spent long hours at work. Flandrin descibes their routine: “. . . Our regime here is much the same. We shut ourselves up within the four walls as soon as it is light, and do not come out again till dark. The days are too short, and we work by lamplight. We suffer from cold and rheumatism, albeit in the South, and I hope we shall have done by Easter. I can tell you it will have been by pulling hard against the collar.” It was during this pressure of work that Flandrin had a bad fall from one of his scaffolds. He was considerably hurt, but he did not give way to pain for an hour more than he could help and, in a few days, while yet stiff with bruises, he was again hard at work. After three months he had “produced all the sketches and twenty-four metres of cartoons for the town. . . . and I am adding a third cartoon to two already done, which are about to be transferred to the wall.” In a letter to his old master, Ingres, he says that their work “has had no interruption save that of Sundays. I long to submit this enormous work to you, and to hear your criticisms. I shall have to leave it so hastily that I shall hardly be able to take in the ensemble, or to keep a lasting impression of it. In order to judge of it and of myself somewhat fairly, I should like to see it again at the end of six months. My good helpers have been most devoted, and I think we have executed the paintings as rapidly as was possible. . . . We have had a most enchanting climate during this winter, and the rare expeditions we could indulge in were so attractive that Paul thinks of staying on in this country to draw.” April found Flandrin still at Nîmes in spite of his uninterruptedly laborious toil. “It is so difficult to finish a work,” he writes again to Victor Baltard, “and this, which is one of the finest I could have to execute, has led me on further than I expected. I wish you could see it; I think you would say I was right to have sacrificed and braved a good deal in order to finish it. Besides, a host of bothers which one could not foresee have hindered me, and, in spite of a beautiful winter, we have worked as much as a fortnight together by lamplight. However, now I am really finishing, but I am so weary with this persistent work that I really must have a few days of rest.”
In spite of the sacrifices and difficulties encountered, Flandrin and his crew painted the decorations at Nîmes in a record time of only eight months and they proved to be among his best. In the apse he painted a colossal Christ in Majesty flanked by the Apostle’s Peter and Paul and The Coronation of the Virgin. The Christ in Majesty had particular meaning to Flandrin. At the Savior’s feet a king and a slave bow in humble gratitude and adoration, one laying his crown and the other his chains on the steps of His throne. Flandrin inscribed the names of his father and mother, sister (Caroline, who had died just before he and Paul traveled to Paris the first time) and brother’s wife and children, of all those closest to him whom he had loved or lost, within the fold of the drapery of his figure of Christ at the top of the choir. The names are invisible to the viewer and can be seen only by God, to Whom they are offered in an artistic prayer. The head of Christ is simple and beautiful, conceived like an austere Byzantine depiction of Jesus as Pantocrator (“All Powerful” or “Ruler of All”). The procession of virgins and martyrs in the church’s choir are pious in expression and decoratively striking. They provided a wealth of experience for the similar theme that he would amplify and perfect in his next work.
Flandrin’s Highest Achievement
The Church of Saint Vincent-de-Paul
Flandrin’s next undertaking was his highest achievement: the austere and magnificent frieze in the nave of the Church of Saint Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. Flandrin received the commission after almost ten years of bureaucratic entanglements. Before it was offered to him it had been offered to Ary Scheffer and Paul Delaroche, who refused it. The commission was then offered to Ingres, who undertook then resigned from the project. In December I846 the Municipal Council asked Flandrin to undertake the proposed decoration, a work both artistically and financially attractive to Flandrin. He was to paint a frieze around three sides of the nave, for which he would receive two hundred thousand francs. But with his usual unselfishness and consideration, Flandrin refused the commission that he would otherwise have gladly accepted, out of respect for Ingres. Flandrin feared to hurt his beloved master, saying that “it would have been a grand and delightful undertaking, but my position with respect to M. Ingres is very delicate, and I would far rather give up the undertaking than run the slightest risk of wounding him. . . . As I cannot accept the work, it has been intrusted to M. Picot, a member of the Institut, but the Prefect, in reply to the remonstrances of the Council, has promised that Saint Germain shall be finished, and, to say the truth, I think I should like that even better than the work I have refused.”
In 1848, just as Picot was about to begin, the Revolution disturbed everything and, when a new town administration came into office, Armand Marrast, the Mayor, withdrew the commission from Picot and offered it to Flandrin. Disgusted at what he considered unfair treatment of a fellow artist and Prix de Rome winner (1813), Flandrin declined the task a second time. It was only after Picot’s urging that he would listen to any propositions on the subject, and even then he insisted on Picot taking part in the project as well as himself. Until the matter was decided, Flandrin continued to work at Saint Germain-de-Prés. After due consideration, the commission went to both Flandrin and Picot: Flandrin was to paint the nave and Picot the choir. Flandrin’s brother, Paul, Louis Lamothe and three other students assisted him in the four-year project.
In the long nave of Saint Vincent-de-Paul Flandrin reveals his full genius as an artist and a decorator, beautifully integrating his painting with the architecture to form one grand and harmonious unit. The frieze, which depicts Christians from throughout history walking in procession toward the choir, is supported by tall pillars below and supports slightly shorter ones above. The procession consisted of one hundred seventy-one figures, eighty-eight on the left and eighty-three on the right. The persons were divided into groups, first broadly according to gender, women on the left of the choir and men on the right. The men and women were then divided into smaller groups according to office or activity. The men were grouped as: Apostles, martyrs, doctors, bishops and confessors; the women as: virgin martyrs, virgins, female saints, penitents and, at the end of the women, couples, and families. Flandrin took extreme care with his programmatic research to ensure that the models, clothing, accouterments and gestures of the personages he was portraying were as historically correct and as expressively appropriate as he could make them. The figures are silhouetted against a base of gold leaf and were painted in oil mixed with a wax vehicle in a effort to imitate the matte finish of a fresco. They rival those of the Parthenon for beauty of contour and dignity and variety of gesture and costume. The rhythmic variation in their grouping and spatial intervals, and the abstract clarity of the parts in relation to the whole when seen from a distance, are comparable to the great Greek frieze.
In these groups, Flandrin’s designing of draperies stands preeminent. I can think of no other artist who has consistently designed such beautifully draped garments except, perhaps, Raphael, Bouguereau and Flandrin’s pupil, Elie Delaunay. The artist’s skill as a decorative colorist is revealed in the palette with which he harmonizes the figures with the multicolored stone and gilding of the building’s interior. Like the Parthenon, Flandrin’s frieze resembles “frozen music.” The artist has succeeded in uniting the beauty and naturalism of the ancient Greeks with the austere dignity that he thought was required of decoration in the church. In the words of the painter, Victor Orsel, Flandrin had successfully managed “to baptize Greek art.”
Monseigneur Plantier, the Bishop of Nîmes, wrote of the artist’s faith in relation to his art: “Flandrin sought to preach after his own manner, and to him painting became eloquence, wherewith he uttered a magnificent profession of faith in the walls of God’s Temples.” Bishop Plantier seems to have been intimate with Flandrin, and to have thoroughly appreciated the artist’s deep and genuine faith, which as he says, had 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 to teach. Long since I remember discussing his future works with him, when he had been asked to decorate the Cathedral at Strasbourg, and the thing which struck me most was the religious awe with which he contemplated his task, and the earnest solicitude with which he collected the materials necessary to guide him. The bare idea of any voluntary shortcoming or negligence revolted not merely his artistic feelings, but his faith as a Christian. I shall never forget his saying to me in the most touching manner, ‘Providence has constrained me to give myself up rather exclusively to religious art.’ It was true. God, Who had claimed Overbeck’s talents for Himself in Germany, seems in like manner to have claimed Flandrin in France, in order to prove to the nineteenth century, amid the reign of rationalism, that sincere faith and fervent love for the Church are not incompatible with the highest inspirations of art. . . . Heart and intellect combined in him to direct his talent. Too often amongst ourselves the Christianity of art is a mere circumstance, it renders a scene from the Gospel as it would one from Homer—its inspirations are factitious and shallow; but in Hippolyte the artist and 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, and the saints who became the heroes of his pencil were also the models of his life. . . . He was just as simple in the practice of his religion as in the expression of his faith, and the combination of simplicity and superiority were very striking in him. If, to use a proverbial expression, he possessed la foi du charbonnier [simple faith], he was no less possessed by the highest faith of genius, . . . and with all its vigour he combined its most refined delicacy. . . . Look at the procession of virgins in our Church of Saint Paul; every stroke, their attitude, the calm purity of glance, the seraphic expression of countenance, the grand severity of drapery, all tell of souls so pure that all about them is spiritualised, so that merely the indispensable material existence remains. And these pure forms are a correct indication of him who traced them—he too was transparent and clear as crystal.”
Those who delight to visit Saint Vincent-de-Paul, and gaze upon that wondrous group of imaged saints, will be interested in a little anecdote connected with the broad terrace at the top of the flight of steps leading up to the west door, and which is specially characteristic of the master whose hand has decorated it. One September evening he had taken his little son there with him after dinner, and standing on the top of the broad steps,” I gazed in wondering admiration at the sky, one side of which still was bright with the glowing tints of the setting sun, while on the other the moon’s bright orb rose silently. Auguste tried to count the stars. I talked to him about our Father in Heaven, and the child knelt down upon the stones, and leaning against the door with folded hands, began to pray for all of us.”