By Stephen Gjertson
Born in Fourquevaux, France (near Toulouse) on March 28, 1838, Jean-Paul Laurens came from a very modest background and started his career as a simple color grinder for an itinerant Piedmontese master. In 1854 he went on to receive training under Jean Blaise Willemsens at the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse and in 1860 obtained a municipal grant enabling him to move to Paris, where he studied in the studios of Léon Cogniet and Alexandre Bida. While there he met Madeleine Willemsens, the daughter of his first teacher in Toulouse. Laurens married Madeleine in 1869 and they had two sons. From poor and humble beginnings Laurens earned a reputation as one of the leading painters working in “the Grand Tradition” during the latter half of the 19th Century in France.
Painting in the Grand Tradition
According to an academic hierarchy developed over several centuries by theorists and artists such as Giovanni Bellori, Roger de Piles and Joshua Reynolds, the “Grand Tradition” or “Grand Manner” refers to paintings with the most elevated and noble themes: historical, religious or mythological subjects. These themes were considered the most worthy of representation by the artist and were treated in an idealized style that stressed beauty of drawing and modeling. This respect for historical painting and ideal representation remained strong throughout the 19th Century. Historical painting required great skill in design and drawing, and studies of the human figure were the foundation of training in the academies. The purpose of the Prix-de-Rome competition was to encourage and reward students who created successful paintings of historical subjects in an elevated style.
During the 19th Century the taste for ancient Greek and Roman subject matter gradually shifted to more exotic and picturesque subjects. Artists traveled and some were influenced by the Near East and Egypt, as well as the ancient Byzantine world (Honorius) and the western Middle Ages. Painting in “the Grand Tradition” shifted as the painter’s choice of subjects expanded to include more personal and intimate historical themes. The characteristic idealism and beauty of drawing associated with earlier academic theory shifted as well, toward a more realistic representation. Within this changing and expanding genre, Jean-Paul Laurens can rightly be considered as one of the principal French painters practicing “the Grand Tradition” at the end of the 19th century and was one of its last representatives when it went into decline at the end of his life. His themes are both heroic and anecdotal, portraying a multitude of historical events in a profusion of inventive ways. Drawn from antique sources or biblical texts, the classical themes preoccupying Laurens in his first works were later replaced by subjects from the Western Middle Ages, the history of southern France, the Byzantine world and the exotic Near East.
He sought inspiration in memoirs, the history of the popes, the lives of the saints and chronicles updated by contemporary historians. He had favorite subjects, which his ingenious imagination transformed into highly personal iconographic cycles. But within the originality of his conceptions and through his renderings of the past, Laurens also bears witness to a general revival of interest in the past which existed throughout the 19th Century. At a time when history was becoming a discipline in its own right, the canvases of Laurens illustrated some of the subjects that were preoccupying 19th century historians. This is particularly evident in his subjects concerning French history. This contiguity gives us a good idea of what was transpiring in the schools of history and the influence this had on an academic painter.
The work of Laurens is most intimately linked with that of the French historian Augustin Thierry. Not only was Laurens inspired by his writings on the Normans, which brought forth paintings such as The Funeral of William the Conqueror (1876), he was first and foremost the master illustrator of Episodes from Merovingian History in the new edition of 1887. In his portrayals of the rivalries between the sons of Chlotar I, he reconstructs the rich narrative of the dynastic conflicts that raged among the last of the Frankish royal line at the end of the sixth century. With incredible fidelity and graphic ingenuity, Laurens created forty-two illustrations of the most vivid passages of a text that has become one of the great classics of French historiography.
The Salon was an annual and juried public exhibition of works (sculpture, paintings, drawings, etchings, etc.) by living artists, which was much talked about and was the primary showcase for contemporary art. Originally founded by Colbert in 1699, during the reign of Louis XIV, for members of the Royal Academy, this state-sponsored institution operated as an official system of artistic recognition throughout the 19th century. The Salon was a primary way in which artists, patrons, dealers and the public were brought together. As the goals of the Academy were supplanted by those of younger artists, the Salon gradually lost its importance amidst the abundance of competing exhibitions at the beginning of the 20th Century
Laurens opened an independent atelier in Paris during the late 1870s. Among his students were Boston artist Frederic Porter Vinton. He joined the Higher Committee for Fine Arts in 1880, and he occupied a consultative position with the ministry of Public Art Instruction, then with the administrative commission at the Fine Arts School in Paris in 1881. He taught in a studio at the Académie Julian from about 1884 until the early 1900s. His reputation was finally established when he was chosen to replace Ernest Meissonier in the Fine Arts Academy in 1891. He became director of the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse in 1893.
A Flair for the Dramatic; a Penchant for the Macabre
Jean-Paul Laurens was undoubtedly a painter with a dramatic temperament. He loved history, especially melancholy episodes or those imbued with drama. He represented only a few scenes of action or movement, preferring the tense, single moment of dawning fear or the desolate aftermath of a disaster. Laurens strongly believed in the importance of well-chosen subjects. His works always originated from a narrative framework supplied by stories or chronicles. The impact of the painting depended partly on how much the spectator had to know before understanding it, which explains the captions — often quite long — that accompanied the paintings in the Salon catalogs or on the walls he decorated.
Selecting the appropriate moment was a crucial element in historical painting. It was the art of translating the erudition of institutions, societies and ancient morals into a powerful image. It portrayed the essence of a period and summarized the characteristics of a civilization. Jean-Paul Laurens poured the full measure of his talent and erudition into his subjects and succeeded in giving a mere detail the proportions of an historical event, by giving the episode he was illustrating all the significance of an epitaph engraved in stone. In a single historical character, he excels in bringing to life a whole epoch like the Byzantine Empire in Saint John Chrysostom and the Empress Eudoxia (1893). His sense of detail, his concern for the archaeological accuracy of decor and costumes and a wonderful sense of composition made him an artist who was to become a source of inspiration for directors of epic films and 20th century artists such as R. H. Ives Gammell, who greatly admired the work of Laurens.
The success of Laurens’ compositions lies in his decisive sense of choosing the right moment in historical tragedy. A striking example of such a moment is in his great painting The Excommunication of Robert the Pious in 998 (1875). The action is in the past, Lauren’s depicts only the devastating aftermath. The dazed king sits on the throne, his cousin Berthe clutching him in dismay. The smoking, extinguished candle, symbol of his excommunication by the church, lies on the floor — pointing to him in mute accusation as the clerics file out of the hall.
Laurens’ taste for solemn subjects sometimes shifted into the macabre. The painter had a reputation for unearthing some “very fine horrors” such as Pope Formosa and Stephen VII (1870), which is indeed a very striking example. Purely anecdotal, this painting illustrates the trial of the predecessor of a pontiff of the high Middle Ages. The corpse of the deceased Pope has been exhumed and placed on the Roman throne for the occasion. Its graphic verisimilitude makes it an example of morbid realism. Laurens’ ability to capture a moment of dreadful revelation is confirmed in Francisco Borgia Before the Coffin of Isabelle of Portugal (1876) where Borgia is so profoundly affected by the sight of the decomposing body of the sovereign, renowned for her beauty, that he later renounces the world and enters the Jesuit order.
The Last Moments of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico (1882) is treated with a remarkable economy of means and reveals the moral strength of the archduke of Austria (temporary emperor of Mexico) just before his tragic execution. In The Death of Marceau (1877), the Austrian commander who bows down before the republican general renders homage above all to loyalty and courage and is thus presented to the spectator as a noble example to follow.
Laurens’ link with the state was largely through commissions and patronage. However, this link was also a result of ideological affinities. His paintings represent, more or less explicitly, the nation, power and national pride, thus forging the emblems and images that contribute to shaping the foundations of a society. The period marking the beginning of the Third Republic is accompanied by the development of this genre, which served to illustrate the new regime, thus fulfilling a social role and leaving behind the old aristocratic elite of the Ancien Regime. The themes treated by Jean-Paul Laurens reveal the deep republican convictions associated with the French Revolution, which moved him to defend the values he attributed to the new regime: freedom (of expression and for the people), equality (for everyone before the Law and Justice), and fraternity (between men, irrespective of their political or religious beliefs).
Officially recognized as a major artist, Jean-Paul Laurens, a confirmed republican, obtained several large-scale commissions for monumental decoration. His first work of this kind was for the municipality of Paris. His painting entitled Saint Bruno Refusing the Offerings of Roger, Count of Calabre (1874) was intended for the Church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs. He painted a mural in 1874-1876 for the Palace of the Légion of Honor that represented Bonaparte laying the first foundations of the palace.
Laurens worked periodically on the project for eleven years, from 1874 to 1885. He completed the four lower paintings by 1882 and they were publicly unveiled in April. He spent three more years painting the frieze above. Laurens’ murals are among his masterworks. The fine conception, the superb drawing and design, the vigorous paint handling, and the insightful characterization of the figures gained for him a long-lasting reputation as a decorator.
Thereafter, Laurens worked on numerous mural commissions. In Paris, he painted the ceiling of the dome in the Odéon Theatre (1887-1888).
He completed five panels representing memorable episodes in the history of the capital in the Lobau City Hall (1889-1903). Laurens was also responsible for a large part of the decorative work located in the City Hall in Toulouse (1892-1902). Here we can still see his work in the three tempera side decorations, one of which is The Wall (1895). Lying at the heart of Laurens’ identification with his origins in Southern France were the painful memories of the Albigensian crusade—a subject that he chose for his decorations of the Capitol. The Wall portrays the town defending itself against the crusading armies led by Simon de Montfort. In The Apotheosis of the Woman who Killed Montfort (1899), the woman who, according to the chronicles, threw the fateful stone which killed him, is glorified in the allegory of the lion and the lamb. The regional press considered one of these decorative works, The South’s Heroic Struggle Against the Barbarians of the North, as the most beautiful mural of its kind. (A flourishing artistic milieu existed in this region with personalities like the sculptor Alexandre Falguière and the painters Benjamin-Constant and Henri Martin. Wanting to promote these Languedoc artists, Laurens participated in the Cadets de Gascogne Tour (1898), which was his way of contributing to the revival. It was at this moment that the Salle des Illustres in the Toulouse City Hall was inaugurated and the status of “Elder” among Toulouse painters was bestowed upon Laurens.)
Laurens became involved in a movement that marked a certain cultural revival in the south of France. As homage to his land, he painted a powerful rustic fresco entitled Le Lauraguais (1897). This painting reveals that certain southern poets, like his compatriot Auguste Fourès, author of Cants del Soulelh, also fueled his inspiration. While the Félibrige movement praised the revival of the “Oc” dialect and defended the identity of southern culture, Laurens actually spoke the dialect in private and captioned his compositions in the Capitol in the language of Oc. He also painted a triptych on the life of Joan of Arc for the town hall in Tours (1899-1903), two mural panels for the préfecture of the Loire (1901-1904) and the ceiling of the municipal theatre in Castres (1902-1908). Laurens later painted the ceiling and the Great Staircase decoration (1900-1915) of the Toulouse City Hall. As the new century progressed, however, and the work of significant academicians became passé, Laurens sank out of the limelight and he received no further important state commissions.
Although not official decorative commissions, Laurens provided numerous sketches for tapestries manufactured at the Gobelins workshops in Paris. Here, he also seemed to compose his sketches with the constraints of the tapestry in mind, using half-tones for the solid background areas and saturating the decorative elements with vivid color.
Laurens’ remarkable mastery of traditional methods of painting, and above all his ability to adapt them to the subject matter, is striking. He preferred painting alla-prima with solid, opaque paint on a white canvas with no imprimatura, carefully yet vigorously finishing what could be done in one session and then moving on to another section. Le Lauraguais, on the first floor of the Capitol in Toulouse, is painted freely, using a rapid alla-prima method that leaves traces of the preliminary drawing showing through the paint. His amazing facility was the result of much careful preparation in the way of drawings, studies and cartoons. Laurens’ color is rich. He particularly liked the warm earth colors, yet skillfully handled bright color as the work demanded. He encouraged his students to get their color from nature rather than convention, and much of his own work has the distinctive look of color observed from life.
Beyond his work as an illustrator and his state-commissioned works, Jean-Paul Laurens developed his own iconographic cycles in his canvases. One rather unique subject became a recurrent motif in many of his easel works. Taken from an 11th Century chronicle by R. de Coggeshole, the quarrels between the second Capetian sovereign and the church provided Laurens with his first theme. His famous portrayal of The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875) presents a highly dramatized version of the sanction imposed on the king of France, guilty of having married his distant cousin, Berthe. The Interdict, painted in the same year, shows abandoned corpses cut off from the grace of God outside a boarded up chapel door where the sacraments are no longer delivered — a warning about the ensuing disaster for France.
Repression of Albigensian heresy was Laurens’ second favorite theme. It was above all through the character Bernard Délicieux that Laurens resurrected this part of French history as it was described at that time by the historian Bernard Haureau. His inspiration also came from the Latin manuscript of the Inquisition trials. In Freeing of the Imprisoned of Carcassonne, Laurens illustrated the riots caused by the sermons of Délicieux, a brave Franciscan monk who stood up against the excesses of the religious courts in the 1300s.
In a spectacular confrontation, The Agitator of Languedoc (1887) depicts him boldly facing his terrible judges. The series is concluded with the painting After the Interrogation (1882), which soberly portrays the mortal remains of the monk being taken back to the dungeon after his torture.
The Inquisition is a theme that occurs in other works by Laurens. This subject preoccupied the 19th century historians. A Critical history of the Spanish Inquisition by Canon J. A. Llorente of Toledo unearthed the blackest episodes in history. Charged with the same anticlerical fervor, the same urge to depict the dangers of religious intolerance, Laurens multiplied his variations on this theme in The Walls of the Holy Office (1883) depicting the role of the Pope’s hidden adviser; The Pope and the Inquisitor (1882) showing Sixtus IV with Torquemada, who is examining the PapalBull making him Inquisitor General of Castilla and Aragon in 1483; The Great Inquisitor in the Time of the Catholic Kings (1886) depicting the decision to persecute Jews in the Spanish kingdom; Men of the Holy Office (1889) showing the effectiveness of repression in the Roman Catholic Church-State in this chilling portrayal of the inquisitors examining the files of those whose lives were in the balance.
Jean-Paul Laurens never severed his roots in Southern France even while living in Paris, where he used to socialize with his southern compatriots in formal and informal circles. He finally returned to his place of birth and completed a decorative work entitled Ecce Homo (1920) in a chapel in the church of Fourquevaux. Laurens died in his studio in Paris on March 23, 1921. The local press unanimously agreed that his death was a great loss for French art and for the Toulouse school of art, of which he was surely the most illustrious representative. He was rendered discrete, but unanimous homage.
Jean-Paul Laurens was one of the greatest academic realists of the later 19th Century. His illustrations are those of an indisputably excellent draughtsman. His etchings for a re-edition of Goethe’s Faust (1885), Alfred de Vigny’s Reminiscences of Military Grandeur (1898) and Victor Hugo’s Pope, and The Imitation of Jesus Christ (1878) reveal his ability to give even his smaller work a characteristic monumentality. Laurens’ work is highly personal. It is bold and balanced in design, and his method is broad and painterly. His drawing is sure and incisive, and his color is as rich as the southern French soil from which he came. All of these qualities are undeniably demonstrated in his finest works and are proof of his consummate mastery of the art of painting.
Stephen Gjertson edited, adapted, and expanded this article from material written for an exhibition of Laurens’ work at the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, February 4 – May 4, 1998. It was published in the Classical Realism Newsletter, Issue 16, Spring 2005.