Hippolyte Flandrin: A Nineteenth Century Master, Part III

By Stephen Gjertson

The Church of Saint Martin d’Ainay in Lyons

The Central Apse, 1855. Church of Saint Martin d’Ainay, Lyons.

Christ, the Virgin, Saint Blandina, Saint Clotilde, Saint Michael, Saint Pothinus, Saint Martin. Lithograph by Jean-Baptiste Poncet after Flandrin's decoration in the Church of Saint Martin d'Ainay, Lyons.

In 1854 Flandrin completed his work in Saint Vincent-de-Paul. The following year he was engaged in a similar undertaking for the Church of Saint Martin d’Ainay in his hometown of Lyons. In July of 1855, aided by Louis Lamothe and Jean-Baptiste Poncet, Flandrin began work in the church. He found the Curé ready to trust him thoroughly, and the first measure taken was to get an order from that gentleman to have all his scaffolding taken down and put up anew, as it had been prepared so as to make painting impossible! There were other drawbacks when he began to paint; the walls were badly prepared, and so wet that the first outlines had to be drawn three times; then a platform on the scaffolding gave way, and Flandrin had a fall, not from any important height, but enough to sprain both his feet and cause him to lose several days. The church was dark, the lights inconvenient, and July though it was, several days were so gloomy, that he said a candle would have been acceptable! and the curves of the rounded parts of the building, which necessarily altered the outlines of his figures, were troublesome. Another trouble to which Flandrin was sensitive, was that every one in the church could see what was going on, and, as he says, criticism set to work as soon as there were four strokes drawn! Flandrin declared to his brother that if he had known all the difficulties beforehand which were to beset him, he would never have undertaken the work.

Left: Saint Badulph. Right: Saint Benedict. Lithograph by Jean-Baptiste Poncet after Flandrin's decoration in the Church of Saint Martin d'Ainay, Lyons.

The extreme simplicity, almost severity of this work stands in marked contrast to he elaborate programs that he conceived for Saint Vincent-de-Paul and Saint Germain-des-Prés. This work consisted of single figures silhouetted against a flat gilt background. Behind the altar is a grand figure of Christ Blessing the World, with the Virgin, Saints Blandina and Clotilde, the Archangel Michael, Saint Pothinus, the Apostle of Lyons, and Saint Martin. In the smaller right hand apse is Saint Benedict seated in his Abbot’s chair, with two monks at his feet dedicating the Abbey of Ainay to his rule, and on the other side Saint Badulph. Although quite successful artistically, the work was plagued with problems. The scaffolding, which had been constructed in a way that made painting impossible, had to be rebuilt before work could begin. The walls were poorly prepared and were so wet that the cartoons could barely be transferred. When painting finally began, a platform gave way and Flandrin suffered another fall, spraining both feet and causing him to lose several days of work. To make matters worse, the church was dark and poorly lit. On gloomy days the painters had difficulty seeing their work. The curves of the rounded parts of the building altered the outlines of the figures, which had to be redrawn to take this into consideration. Another irritation to Flandrin was that the work was open for all to see, and he relates that before there were four strokes drawn it began to receive criticism. He confided to his brother that if he had foreseen these difficulties he would never have begun work. “I am ruining my sight,” he wrote, “and take what trouble I may I believe that this work will never count as worth much!” This, however, was an unnecessarily gloomy view of the matter and there were many who, like the Bishop of Nîmes, saw a grand poem written in paint on the three apses of the church.

Flandrin’s Great and Final Gift
The Church of Saint Germain-de-Prés

Three spans in the Church of Saint Germain-de-Prés as they appear today. Left: The Betrayal of Christ and The Selling of Joseph into Slavery. Center: The Crucifixion and The Sacrifice of Isaac. Right: The Resurrection and The Deliverance of Jonah.

Joshua, ca. 1860-63. Oil over pen and brown ink, 13 7/16 x 5 5/8. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Van Day Truex Fund, 1985.

Hezekiah, King of Judah, ca. 1860-63. Oil over pen and brown ink, 12 x 5 9/16. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Van Day Truex Fund, 1985.

It was after these severe trials at Lyons that Flandrin began his final and most complex decorative program, the nave of Saint Germain-des-Prés. This immense task involved twenty paintings below with forty Old and New Testament figures flanking the windows above. Virtually all of the wall space was covered with painted pictures, figures, architecture or decorative borders and motives. The themes were perhaps the most theologically satisfying that Flandrin had done up to that time, and he may well have enjoyed painting this cycle of subjects more than any other. The twenty large paintings were arranged in pairs above the arches along the sides of the nave, the right one being an Old Testament prophecy or type and the left one its New Testament fulfillment in Christ. For example, Flandrin pairs The Selling of Joseph into Slavery with The Betrayal of Christ by Judas, and The Sacrifice of Isaac with The Crucifixion, and Jonah’s deliverance after three days in the belly of the fish with The Resurrection of Christ after three days in the tomb. Above these panels, to the left and right of tall center windows, are sets of two persons from Old Testament history.

Flandrin unified his decorative scheme through the judicious division of space and by the repetition and unity of color throughout: a cream wall against which is placed the same cerulean blue in each painting and figural background, and a rich border of red surrounding each formal division, with decorative motives of green and gold. Although as a whole it is not as visually satisfying as the nave of Saint Vincent-de-Paul there are, nevertheless, many superb panels and figures among the groups. The Passage of the Red Sea is a marvelously designed and powerful panel.

Always humble, and free from the self-consciousness which leads us to dwell largely on our own doings, Flandrin writes but little of his last work. The few times that he does allude to it in his letters are very characteristic, as when he writes to his brother, Paul, a landscape painter, (while painting Adam and Eve in Paradise and Moses Before the Burning Bush): “I am working at life-size landscape myself, and as the best way out of my difficulty, I have a mind to go and see if your concierge will let me make one or two studies in your atelier;” and in another letter to M. Laurens, he says: “I am working at the nave of Saint Germain-des-Prés—just at this moment on the subject of God rebuking Adam and Eve after their fall; is it not enough to make one tremble?”

The Crucifixion, c. 1860. Church of Saint Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

Christ on the Cross, study. Pencil, 11 3/4 x 9 1/8. Cabinet des Dessins, Louvre, Paris.

Head of Christ. Pencil, 11 5/8 x 13 3/8. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons.

Flandrin’s crucifixion in Saint Germain-des-Prés is the only depiction of that event that he painted and he did many studies from life for the figure, which is strictly idealized. He included none of the imperfections and disfigurements that would have accompanied the actual event. It is interesting to note how he designed the figure of Jesus amidst the conflict that then raged within the Catholic Church over the depiction of the crucified Christ. Strict Ultramontanes insisted the only proper way to indicate the nature of His divine sacrifice was to allow his hands and arms to bear no wait, the arms being held completely straight, at right angles to the body. Flandrin chose a compromise gesture, the hands held straight and obviously bearing no weight, but the arms gently lowered in the shape of a Y rather than a T. This shape, and not the other, harmonized much better within the context of the mural’s format and the design and gestures of the other figures. It was an artistic decision that he made for aesthetic rather than symbolic reasons. Flandrin was an artist in the truest sense of the word. When conception and art could be perfectly harmonized and integrated, all well and good, but when they were in conflict, conception must bow to art, a decision for which, in this case, he received some criticism.

Mary Magdalene at the Foot of the Cross. Pencil, 10 1/2 x 7 1/2. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons.

Today, tragically, Flandrin’s decorations lie buried beneath layers of dirt and dust. In many places the paint is peeling and much has flaked off. Parts of some paintings, such as the lower left leg of the soldier in front of Christ in The Ascent to Calvary, are missing entirely. Contemporary printed material in the church states that Flandrin’s work “touches us but little” and their “interest now is historic . . . .” How could it be otherwise, when their excellence is nearly impossible to see and so few today understand, recognize, or appreciate his artistic intentions? However, the French are slowly recognizing that the greatness of their art ended with the 19th century and they are beginning to clean and restore the masterpieces of this long-neglected period, from the Opéra Garnier and Church of the Trinity to the Grand and Pitti Palais. One can only hope that they will also consider cleaning and restoring Flandrin’s decorations in the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. This work engaged Flandrin from 1855 to 1861, but his failing health necessitated many absences.

The drawings and studies that Flandrin did for this project are numerous and very beautiful, in the best tradition of expressive figure drawings. They reveal his quest for expressive gesture, design and form. The color studies range from entire sections of the wall, from floor to ceiling, to studies of individual figures and panels. They are done to work out the complex problems of decorative design: the value, scale, placement, and color of the parts as they relate to the whole and to the surrounding architecture. All are both interesting and beautiful.

Three Exemplary Portraits

Napoléon-Joseph-Charles-Paul Bonaparte, Prince Napoléon, 1860. Oil on canvas, 46 x 35. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

During these later years, while Flandrin was occupied with the works at Saint Germain-des-Prés, he was obliged to refuse many commissions for portraits. However, he painted several well-known portraits of people that he could not refuse. The first was of Prince Napoléon. The Prince was the second son of Jérôme Bonaparte, king of Westphalia, by his wife Catherine, princess of Württemberg. His sister was Princess Mathilde. After the French revolution of 1848 he was elected to the National Assembly of France as a representative of Corsica. He was a close adviser to his first cousin, Napoleon III. An anti-clerical liberal, he led that faction at court and tried to influence the Emperor to anti-clerical policies. The Emperor’s wife, the Empress Eugénie, was a devout Catholic and a conservative, and the patroness of those who wanted French troops to protect the Pope’s sovereignty in Rome. Flandrin was sympathetic to the sentiments of the Empress rather than those of the Prince. The artist’s keen eye for seeing and transcribing nature truthfully resulted in a sober and honest portrayal of the sitter. The critic, Edmund About, described the portrait as a picture of “the complete Prince Napoléon.”

In 1862 Flandrin painted the fine portrait of the politician Auguste Casimir-Perier. Perier was the eldest son of Casimir-Pierre, the famous banker and politician of the Restoration and the July Monarchy, and the father of the president of the republic, Jean-Paul Pierre Casimir-Perier. Flandrin’s portrait coincided with the model’s return to political life after a ten-year retirement. The family owns a study for the portrait that is different in attitude and design from the final painting. Flandrin created a powerful, energetic and imposing image, perfectly spotting the placement of the light head, shirt, and two hands against the dark interior.

Auguste Casimir-Perier, 1862. Oil on canvas, 74 3/4 x 35 1/8. Musée de la Revolution Francaise, Vizille.

Flandrin continued to receive request for portraits. He wrote to Paul Lacuria from Auteuil: “June 29, I862. I am not delivered from portrait painting, but I am a little less beset, and I profit by it to return to that which ought to engross me entirely, and which, between ourselves, is much less wearisome to me. . . . Health permitting, we are making an attempt to get to Rome, after which I have been sighing these twenty-four years, and the sight of which I fancy would do me a world of good morally. I was imprudent enough to talk of going there before the children, who are wild to go; and if anything obliges us to defer the journey till another year there will assuredly be great lamentations. As to myself, I feel that I have already postponed it too long, and that if I could have indulged in such enjoyment some years ago it would have greatly added to my powers in the work at Saint Germain-des-Prés.

Emperor Napoleon III, 1863. Oil on canvas, 83 1/2 x 57 ¾. Museum of Versailles. National Museum of the Chateau.

Flandrin’s portrait of Emperor Napoleon III, painted the following year, is undoubtedly his most powerful and celebrated male portrait. He alludes to it in a letter to M. Laurens, dated Paris, Dec. I0, I86I, “I have been long answering you, but I have been under tremendous fire-finishing my paintings in Saint Germain, or rather preparing to uncover what is finished, for there is a lot still to compose and execute. About a fortnight since the scaffolding was removed, and I saw the ensemble for the first time. Then I went to spend a week at Compiegne. Can you fancy me in shorts, with a crush hat under my arm? Indeed, dear friend, I was not at my ease! Nevertheless, their Majesties, really courteous, treated their guests most kindly, and took pains to provide for their pleasure. We had chasse a tir, a course, and curee-balls, plays, etc., but all that is not worth the good daily bread of work, and one’s own free studio and fireside! Still this visit will not have been unprofitable with a view to my portrait of the Emperor, and I know my sitter much better now than before.”

Building on such antecedents as David’s portrait of Napoleon and Ingres’ Bonaparte as First Consul and The Duc d’Orléans, Flandrin created a penetrating image of great dignity and authority. It represents the apex of mid-19th century official portrait painting. The Emperor posed for him in the Salon of the Tuilleries in full military regalia. The scarlet sash and trousers presented striking color notes around which the artist composed a vivid harmony of red, green and gold. For lack of adequate sittings, Flandrin was forced to compose and paint some of the accessories and background from photographs, a fairly common 19th century practice, but one that Flandrin deplored. He resorted to their use when forced by circumstances such as this that were outside of his artistic control, but recognized that the natural color and atmosphere that were necessary in portraits could not be achieved without the actual presence of nature. Shortly after painting this remarkable work Flandrin wrote on the subject to his friend, Lacuria: “I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that photography has inflicted a mortal blow on art. Many people, with its aid, and industry, can perform things otherwise left undone, but where shall we find that vigorous drawing, that living spirit which we admire in great masters, and which can only be the result of constant observation and study of nature?”

Read Hippolyte Flandrin: A Nineteenth Century Master, Part IV.

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