By Stephen Gjertson

The Return to Rome

Joseph Sold into Slavery by His Brothers, Church of Saint Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

Joseph Sold into Slavery by His Brothers, study, 1858. Pencil, 12 x 9⅜. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris.

Flandrin had completed the nave of Saint Germain-des-Prés and was preparing to paint the transept when, in the fall of 1863, he decided to return to Rome. He had desired to make this trip since he had left the Villa Medici twenty-five years earlier. Illness pressed more and more heavily on him, and he felt increasingly less able to face the endless worries and anxieties which his position, both public and private, involved. In Italy he hoped to restore his failing strength and get some mental and emotional rest. He determined “to do nothing but do homage to my beloved Rome.” He disliked leaving his work at Saint Germain-des-Prés unfinished but looked forward to a time when he could return to work with restored health and renewed energy. He intended to request an audience with the Pope to obtain permission to dedicate a set of engravings of his decorations in Saint Germain-des-Prés to him by means of an inscription and the papal coat of arms. He also hoped to paint the Pope’s portrait.

Flandrin enjoyed his trip to Rome, chronicling it with enthusiasm in his letters. In Rome and its environs, he visited the places that had given him so much pleasure in his youth and looked once again on the works of art that had inspired him for over thirty years. “Since I wrote last we have hardly made any distant expeditions. We go over churches, palaces, and galleries again and again, and in spite of the long time I spent here formerly, I find much that is altogether new to me, and undoubtedly I shall still leave much unseen. My regret at leaving Rome is so great, that I have to comfort myself with a secret hope of returning. I do not resist the hope, for it strengthens me, and what hope shows to be possible for me, it proves possible for you too. So don’t let us despair, but let us fill our time in the best way and with the best things we can.” In his Journal the same constant sufferings appear. “Palazzo Spada-cold fearful. Palazzo Farnese the King of Naples not yet gone out, and we are told to return, but I was in too much pain. . . I am almost blind and deaf. I went to the Pincio alone. It is sad not to see this bright sunshine. Everything seems confused and uncertain. . . . What a wondrous expression of grandeur and melancholy there is in the Roman Campagna! It is very different in fine weather, but this is quite as eloquent. . . .”

On the 6th of December the Pope received Flandrin and his family. The only paintings which he executed during his time in Rome were an unfinished portrait of his little son Paul, and two angels’ heads as studies for the decorations he had been asked to undertake in the new Church of Saint Augustine in Paris which his friend, Victor Baltard, was at that time building. He also made a drawing for a portrait of Madame Flacheron. In addition to all the circumstantial difficulties which surrounded him, Flandrin’s health was steadily deteriorating. However, on two successive days, March 1st and 2nd, Flandrin went to San Sisto, to study the paintings of Dominican artist Pere Besson, which pleased him greatly. He notices their good composition and fullness of expression and remarks that the medallions in grisaille “contain things of deep pathos and of an eloquent severity.”

The Reforms of 1863

The Sacrifice of Isaac, study, 1860. Oil on board, 18½ x 23½. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Ciechanowiecki Collection. Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation.

The Passage of the Red Sea. Church of Saint Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

In 1863 there had been a series of administrative changes in the Académie and the École des Beaux-Arts which were held by many, and by none more earnestly than Flandrin, to be most damaging to the cause they loved. Under the sculptor, Comte Émilien de Nieuwerkerke, Superintendant des Beaux-Arts, control was wrested from the Académie in favor of state-appointed administrators. Three studios in the École supplemented the instruction of the private ateliers. While in Rome Flandrin had time to consider these decisions, and his correspondence about them reveals much about his views on art and art education. Upon receiving the Report announcing the proposed changes in the organization of the French Académie, he wrote to Ingres: “It was the very day after I had poured out to you all my delight in being here again, and my admiration for all which is the raison d’etre of our dear Académie, that I received the bad news of these measures, which will upset it all, and will, I greatly fear, ruin our schools. Without entering upon a criticism of the Report, I want, my dear master, to tell you of the answer I have felt bound to give to the letter in which the Ministré des Beaux-Arts announced the suppression of our functions at the École, and my appointment as chef d’atelier under the new organization. There were more sides than one to the question, and I did not know what was going on in Paris, or what the Institut might do. But, all the same, taking counsel with what seems to be the honor of the Académie and my own, I answered His Excellency that I was gratified by this mark of confidence, but that I had combated these now prevailing views too long and too openly to be able honorably to support them now. . . . I hope and believe that you are on the same side, and will not disapprove what I have done.”

Flandrin then wrote to Nicolas Gatteaux: “For the last ten days I have been going over with delight the lessons which antiquity and the great masters afford here. Kindled with enthusiasm, my respect and gratitude was increasing for the admirable institution of Colbert and Louis XIV; for this school, which, in addition to the study of these chefs-d’œuvre in their original position, combines the untold benefit of a community life, enables men to share the result of their studies in various branches of art. It was just when I was more convinced than ever of the value of these things, that the tidings of the ruin of all our grand institutions came crushing upon me. I say the ruin, for the Report which leads to the proposed changes is as inexact in views as in criticism, and I do not see what can come out of it all but the most utter disruption and destruction. May I be mistaken.” And again: “For my own part, I could not hesitate a moment. I perceived the chaos about to ensue, and I have refused to take any part in it. This dear Académie of Rome, to which I have returned so lovingly, has also received a mortal blow. The reduction of the studentship from five to four years, and still more the permission to students only to remain two years in Rome, is a poison which will bring down its strength, and lead sooner or later to its suppression. I would I may prove mistaken! But I must say it again, my sorrow is all the greater because my enthusiasm for Rome has taken still deeper root since my return to it. Yes, indeed, Rome is a wondrous place, the value of which to artists I appreciate more than ever!”

The Mission of the Apostles, study, 1861. Oil on board, 17⅛ x 21⅞. Musée Saint-Croix, Poitiers.

Two Apostles for The Mission of the Apostles, study. Graphite on light gray paper, squared in graphite, 12 1/16 x 8⅞. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Stephen A. Geiger Gift, 1991.

To Victor Baltard he wrote, “The danger is imminent, of nullifying the Académie by exercising reforms, which have no better means of renovation to suggest than systems (procédés) and material means. The professors are to be of painting, sculpture, etc. The Report tells you why: —systems of painting, of sculpture, of architecture, nothing but systems. And they add, with respect to the teaching of the old school, that it consists, strictly speaking, in nothing but a course of drawing well. I am ready to maintain that the school had at least the merit of recommending and of pointing out what really is art, and the whole of art. It is by drawing that life and beauty are expressed, the most exquisite delicacy, the truest philosophy. What remains after that? A garment, which I am far from despising, but which is as a necessary consequence of true drawing in high art. And then they talk of originality, and formularize it, as if it was a thing that can be taught. They aim at organizing freedom of teaching in a school, as though the pros and cons given both at once could create anything but doubt! I believe that there, as elsewhere, it is a duty to teach nothing save incontestable truths, or at least such as are upheld by the highest examples, and endorsed by ages. You may be certain that the pupils of such a school will mold the truths of their own day to these noble traditions; and there you have a promising truth, because it is the product of real liberty.”

Study of Christ for The Mission of the Apostles. Pencil, 12 x 9⅛. Private collection, Paris.

“It is clear affirmation which teaches, not doubt. Do not be afraid of teaching respect and veneration for things which are really beautiful, by the position assigned to them, the care taken of them. Let it be clearly known that it is these that should be loved, admired, honored. . . . Leonardo says, in his Treatise on Painting, that ‘students aiming at rapid progress in the science which teaches us to imitate and represent nature’s works, should devote themselves chiefly to drawing.’ And his biographer writes of Poussin, that ‘as he advanced, he devoted himself especially to beauty of form and correct drawing, which he recognized as the chief point in painting, and for which the greatest painters have almost forsaken everything else so soon as they understood wherein the true perfection of their art lies.’ . . . No, indeed, everything is not equally beautiful, and you cannot put a chef d’œuvre of Clodion and one of Phidias in the same category, as men affect now to do.” These are telling words, penned by Flandrin at the end of a career devoted to the highest principles of life and art.

Death in Rome

Conscious of the weakness to which illness had reduced him, Flandrin’s parting words as he left Paris were: “The good Lord does not will that I finish His house.” And so it was. Hippolyte Flandrin died in his beloved Rome on the 21st of March 1864, two days before his fifty-fifth birthday. “I see the road, a saint is leading me!” he whispered in faint accents shortly before his death. “I see the road, it is made ready!”

The Adoration of the Magi, study, 1857. Oil on board, 17 x 22. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Quimper.

Flandrin’s brother, Paul, and his pupil, Sébastien Cornu, completed the work that he left unfinished at Saint Germain-des-Prés. His funeral was held in that same church under the works that his brush had produced. They bore eloquent testimony to the truth of the parting words uttered on that day by his friend, the renowned archeologist and orator, Charles Beulé: “We have lost, one after another, in rapid succession, Ary Scheffer, Delaroche, Decamps, Horace Vernet, Delacroix, and now Flandrin—the youngest, but not the least important; Flandrin, who was revered by all opposing parties; Flandrin, who upheld the standard of the ideal and of religious art with a hand as modest as it was firm—Flandrin, whose bright talent, always advancing, rising year by year to a more radiant height, seemed only as yet in its first bloom! What works he was about to complete, or to begin! What immortal pages were yet to be written on the walls of Saint Germain-des-Prés and of the Cathedral at Strasburg! What a fertile maturity lay before him!. . . It were not seemly, amid these funeral rites, to dwell upon Flandrin’s life or his works. . . . Let us only say a long farewell to the earthly remains which Rome would fain have gathered in with those of Claude Lorraine and Poussin, but which now the sanctuary of Saint Germain-des-Prés possesses. Ever present to our memory must be that gentle, melancholy, recollected face, which seemed to belong to one of a bygone age; to a Christian neophyte painting the Catacombs, or a medieval artist decorating his monastic chapel with inexhaustible fervor. Flandrin was moved by a sincere piety, which knew no display, but shone brightly within; it was the source of all his pure, lovely inspirations, wherein the utmost simplicity of feeling was backed by profound science; wherein the purity of antique form was united to that of Christian spirituality. He had another rare creed which alone can make a great artist; he believed in the dignity of his art, in those unchangeable principles without which there is no beauty, in rules to which the loftiest intellect must submit, and hence the exquisite simplicity and unity of his life.”

Click to view 19th century photos of Flandrin’s decorations in the Church of Saint Germain-des-Prés.

This article is an amplification of “Hippolyte Flandrin: A Personal Appreciation,” Parts 1 and 2, published in the Classical Realism Quarterly, Vol. III, Issues 3 and 4, Summer/Fall 1988.


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