De Vouet à Watteau

Le Brun: Flora

Un siècle de dessin français: Chefs-d’oeuvre du musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon

(Musée du Domaine départemental de Sceaux, until 12 February 2017)

I should have written about this some weeks ago, but the exhibition is still on for about a month and I’d love to flag this to anyone who might have a chance to see it. While the museum at Besançon is closed for restoration, some of its treasures have gone on tour, including a portion of its superb collection of works on paper.

The drawings curator Hélène Gasnault has put together a lovely little exhibition of their 17th-century French drawings, which is currently on view at the Chateau de Sceaux, a short RER B trip from the centre of Paris. I made a pilgrimage there when I was in Paris a few weeks back and savoured some of Besançon’s wonderful drawings from the grand siècle.

The exhibition is neatly divided up into sections, so we begin with Simon Vouet and his contemporaries in the third decade of the 17th century. Vouet was the founder of French art at its most grandiose and eloquent, by which I mean the kind of splendid paintings that you now see on the ceilings at the Louvre or in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. As a young man he’d spent some time in Rome and, when he was summoned back to France to become painter to the king, he brought with him lots of ideas based on the Italian Baroque. His ideas spread quickly, partly because Vouet’s royal connections made him extremely fashionable, and partly because he was a good teacher who happened to have very talented pupils. One of them, who you’ll hear more about in a moment, was Charles Le Brun. Now, Besançon have no fewer than 34 drawings by Vouet and so only a handful of those were on display here, but there were some lovely examples of his art.

Vouet: Zephyr

Simon Vouet, A Zephyr, c.1638, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon

The poster image of a Zephyr (c.1638) caught my eye, of course, with its powerful diagonal motion and the figure’s well-muscled, classical physique. Note the fingers, too. Vouet’s figures usually have these long, tapering, elegant fingers, which make their gestures all the more graceful. There isn’t much drapery on show in the Zephyr, but in Vouet’s drawing of The seated Christ (c.1632), you can see how his fabric falls in stiff, almost sculpted folds which add to the weight of the underlying figure. Christ raises his hand to one side, as if in blessing: this is a preparatory study for a painting of St Mary Magdalen washing Christ’s feet, which Vouet painted for the chapel of the sumptuous Hôtel Seguier in Paris.

There are examples of work by Vouet’s immediate followers: for example, Claude Mellan, who is represented by a sketchy St Gaetano receiving the Christ Child from the Virgin, and Eustache Le Sueur, who contributes a preparatory drawing for his Alexander the Great and his Doctor, now in the National Gallery. But the most charming work in this section is by the most gifted of Vouet’s pupils: Charles Le Brun, who would become the dominant artist in Louis XIV’s France (those paintings I mentioned at Versailles are by him). His Flora, which I’ve illustrated at the top of this post, is extremely elegant and graceful as she prepares to sprinkle flowers from a basket. Nearby there’s another Le Brun: a powerfully-drawn study of an eagle, conjuring up the bird’s poise with only a few deft strokes of chalk.

Then the show moves on to the next generation of artists. There’s a large, rather fine drawing by Claude Lorrain of the Palace of Staphylus (c.1669), where a typically Claudian scene of trees, towers and a colonnaded palace is enlivened by a bustling crowd of spectators on the terrace. Nearby are drapery studies by Charles de La Fosse and Hyacinthe Rigaud, the first annotated with colour references, the latter drawn so finely that the fabrics seem to shimmer. La Fosse, for whom I have a great deal of time, is also represented by a red-chalk study for St Bruno, who reclines leaning on one elbow, looking serene and comfortable. And there was even a little section devoted to artists from Toulouse; here the drawing which most struck me was a Study of a man by Hilaire Pader, who I’m ashamed to say I haven’t yet come across. A male nude, posed like a boatman with a rope in his hand and a deck beneath his feet, is drawn in black and red chalk, while in the background Pader has incongruously added the figures of the Holy Family resting on the Flight into Egypt.

Towards the end there were artists who, by contrast, I could greet like old friends. A drawing of An angry man attributed to Nicolas Plattemontagne was all fury and frenzy, his hair flying behind his head and his arms flung skyward: a very different spirit from the refined serenity in the British Museum portrait that I know so well. And then there were a couple of Watteaus, both in red chalk: one showing a lively street scene and the other a copy after Domenico Campagnola. The latter was a bucolic scene with a shepherd and shepherdess sheltering beneath a tree with their flock gathered round them. He’s playing a pipe while she rests her elbow on a zither; and, in the distance, one of Campagnola’s characteristic hill towns clings to a ridge.

But the drawing that sent me out with a smile on my lips wasn’t by either of these well-known names, but instead by François Chauveau, whom I don’t know nearly so well. There was a little roundel by him of Neptune and Apollo building the ramparts of Troy, which delighted me because it shows the two gods slogging away as labourers, building the walls with sweat and toil rather than by magic. Apollo has laid down his lyre and is slapping a bit of a mortar on a brick while he chats over his shoulder; Neptune, by contrast, is crouched on the ground, measuring out a decorative cornice with a pair of dividers. It’s a piece of wonderful whimsy.

So, if you find yourself near Sceaux before the beginning of February, do go (and check the website for opening times around the New Year). It’s perfectly possible to get there and back in a morning or an afternoon from Paris. There are some lovely drawings to see: well chosen, clearly arranged and explained with very thorough labels and panels which put everything in context even if you’re not familiar with art of this period. The catalogue hadn’t yet arrived when I was there, but in any case you can find out more about the collection on Besançon’s website. This show has definitely whetted my appetite to visit the museum once it reopens.

 Find out more

Chauveau: Apollo and Neptune building the walls of Troy

François Chauveau, Apollo and Neptune building the Walls of Troy, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon

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