The Story in Paintings: Évariste Luminais and the Franks

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), Flight of King Gradlon (1884), oil on canvas, 200 x 310 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper, Quimper, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 was a catastrophe for France.

The Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck appeared to provoke the French to declare war, which they did on 16 July 1870. Despite Napoleon III’s generals assuring him of France’s military superiority, the Prussians enjoyed a series of swift victories in north-eastern France, culminating in the Siege of Paris, and the fall of the capital on 28 January 1871. That was followed by the Paris Commune, which Napoleon’s army did not suppress until the end of May.

France lost its Emperor – overthrown on 4 September 1870 – many of the buildings of Paris such as the Tuileries Palace, a 5 billion franc war reparation payment to Prussia, all the additional territory it had gained since the 1780s, Alsace and Lorraine, and of course the Impressionist Frédéric Bazille was killed in the fighting.

For Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896) the post-war national desire for revenge (‘revanchism’) turned out to the good. Trained at the École des Beaux-arts in Paris under Léon Cogniet, and in the studio of Constant Troyon, he had already been successful in the Salon, first being accepted in 1843, and receiving the Legion of Honour in 1869. He painted horses particularly well, and had enjoyed success with some modestly social-realist genre paintings, with some forays into French history too.

From about 1870 until his death, Luminais was to prove one of the most popular and successful of the exhibitors in the Salon, with a series of paintings showing the glorious past of France – looking back to a time when the Kingdom of the Franks encompassed much of Europe to the west of the Rhine, under the Merovingian Empire.

After the Duel (date not known)

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), After the Duel (date not known), oil on canvas, 175 × 130.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Possibly dating from before the war, and almost certainly originally in colour, Luminais shows the injured party from a duel, collapsed, his eyes closed. Listening attentively to his chest is an old man, possibly a physician. Above him are the two cloaked seconds from his team, an older man, and a beautiful woman, who is talking while she pours reviving spirits on a handkerchief. Behind and to the right is a young boy, trying to peer over the woman to see what is going on, and holding a small lidded jug on a tray.

This is a good example of Luminais’ textbook use of tight composition, facial expressions, and body language. Sadly I have been unable to discover any context into which to place this event, although it could be the same farcical duel in fancy dress from the winter of 1856-7 depicted by Gérôme.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Duel After the Ball (1857-9), oil on canvas, 39.1 x 56.3 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

The Gauls in sight of Rome (1870)

Although the Gauls had been conquered by the Roman Empire from 58 BCE onwards, leading to as many as a million of their deaths, the Franks had defeated the Gallo-Romans in the Battle of Soissons in 486. This established Merovingian rule by the first kings of what equates to modern France.

Northern Italy had been inhabited by Celts from the 13th century BCE until it was conquered by the Romans in the 220s BCE, in an area known now as Cisalpine Gaul, but it had never reached anywhere close to Rome. Even at the height of the Merovingian Empire, it did not extend into the north of Italy.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), The Gauls in sight of Rome (1870), oil on canvas, 123 x 177 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy, Nancy, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Luminais’ painting showing groups of Gauls on horseback descending from the brow of a hill to the north-west of Rome towards the distant city is, therefore, probably fanciful. In narrative terms it is most interesting because – like Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa – it obscures its most important pictorial element, the city of Rome, and makes it as insignificant as possible without actually hiding it from view. Perhaps in this case it confirms its illusory nature.

The Sons of Clovis II and their failed revolt

Clovis II (637-657/8) was king of Neustria and Burgundy from 639, initially with his mother acting as regent, then a succession of influential nobles. He married Balthild, an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat who had been sold into slavery in Gaul. They had three sons: Chlothar (who succeeded Clovis), Childeric, and Theuderic.

A persistent legend grew up that, in about 660 (by which time Clovis was already dead), Clovis went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Whilst he was away, he entrusted his kingdom to his oldest son, Chlothar, under Balthild’s regency. However his older two sons fell out with their mother, and conspired to seize power from her. Clovis rushed back to control this revolt, and ponder what to do with his sons.

Clovis wanted to execute them both, but Balthild proposed punishment which would deprive their limbs of all power, so they could not revolt again. Although the language is ambiguous, it appears that the main tendons, particularly those of the hamstrings, were cut in their arms and legs, although this is referred to as énervé in the French. The helpless boys were placed on a raft on the river Seine, and floated downstream to Jumièges, near Rouen, where Saint Philibert took them in and gave them shelter.

Luminais made a series of studies for his major work showing the legendary scene of the two boys floating in their bed-like raft on the Seine. He then painted the finished work, The Sons of Clovis II (1880), now in Sydney, Australia.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), The Sons of Clovis II (1880), oil on canvas, 190.7 × 275.8 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

From that he made a copy, now in Rouen, in which he elaborated the detail at the foot of the raft.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), The Sons of Clovis II (1880), oil on canvas, 197 × 276 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Rouen, Rouen, France. Wikimedia Commons.

These are curious paintings of an even stranger – and almost certainly fictitious – legend.

The Flight of King Gradlon

Luminais didn’t only celebrate the Merovingians in paint, but he also painted Breton legendary history. Gradlon the Great (Gradlon Meur or Mawr) was ‘king’ of Cornouaille, in the south-west of the Brittany peninsula, during the fifth century (400s). His legends are associated with the story of the submerged city of Ys.

Gradlon fell in love with Malgven, the Queen of the North, and the pair killed her husband, the King of the North. She bore him a daughter, Dahut, who was possessed by a half-fairy, half-woman who had been rejected by Gradlon in the past. Dahut turned the city of Ys into a place of sin and debauchery. However, it was below sea level, and relied on walls and a sea gate to keep the waters out.

One night, when she was drunk, Dahut stole the key to the sea gate from her sleeping father, and opened the gate, flooding the city. Gradlon woke up and rescued Dahut from the city on his enchanted horse, but her sins kept dragging them back into the sea. Eventually Saint Guénolé (Gwendole or Winwaloe) pushed Dahut into the waves, which were immediately calmed. She was engulfed by the sea, and became a type of siren.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), The Flight of St. Guénolé and King Gradlon (1884), oil on canvas, 50 × 70.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Rennes, France. Photo by Caroline Léna Becker, via Wikimedia Commons.

The version known as The Flight of St. Guénolé and King Gradlon (1884) at Rennes is clearly a late study, showing Gradlon on the right, with Dahut still clinging onto him, and Saint Guénolé riding alongside, gesticulating with his right hand. The remains of Ys are still visible on the horizon.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), Flight of King Gradlon (1884), oil on canvas, 200 x 310 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper, Quimper, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The finished version, Flight of King Gradlon (1884) and now at Quimper, is a superb narrative painting, and shows Luminais’ skill at painting horses, as well as capturing motion frozen almost photographically. Now it is Gradlon who is seen thrusting Dahut away from him, as his horse rears up to help shed its burden.

With such strong action and body language, Luminais has no need of facial expression, which is just as well given the fact that each of the three human faces is at least partly obscured. The two horses make up for the humans.

The Death of Chilperic I (1885)

Chilperic I is not to be confused with the better-known Childeric I (440-481/2) who was the father of Clovis I. Just to make matters more complicated, there was also a Chilperic I who was the king of Burgundy from 473 until about 480. I believe that this painting shows King Chilperic I of Neustria (or Soissons), born in around 539, crowned in 561, and murdered in September 584.

Although they were not entitled, Chilperic’s brothers forced him to share his kingdom, with his eldest brother Charibert becoming king of Paris until he died in 567, when Paris was shared between the four brothers. Unpopular with the church, he was returning from a hunting expedition to his royal villa of Chelles when he was stabbed to death.

The only motivation that I can see for Chilperic’s death to be commemorated in a painting is that an operetta about his life was first performed in 1864, and may have been undergoing revival at the time.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), The Death of Chilperic I (1885), oil on canvas, 240 x 189 cm, Hôtel de Ville, Lyon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Luminais shows a servant and a courtier carrying Chilperic’s body onto a small timber platform. In the distance, caught in a patch of sunlight, the rest of the hunting party is seen.

Psyché (1886)

Luminais also painted conventional mythological narratives, including that of Psyche.

Psyche and her love for Cupid is the central thread in the novel written by Apuleius in the second century CE, which was lost and rediscovered in the Renaissance. Psyche was the youngest of three daughters of a king and queen. Because of rumours about her being an incarnation of Venus, Venus herself was offended, and ordered Cupid to exact revenge. However, Cupid instead scratched himself with one of his own arrows, and fell helplessly in love with Psyche.

Cupid managed to marry Psyche by stealth, and made her pregnant. However Psyche was not aware that Cupid was her husband, and tried to see and kill the monster which she was convinced slept with her each night. Instead she wounded herself on one of Cupid’s arrows, and was struck by the feverish passion of love too.

She then set off on a quest to find her husband. This took her through a succession of trials imposed by Venus. The last of these was to take a box (in Greek, pyxis) to obtain a dose of the beauty of Proserpine, the Queen of the Underworld. Psyche made her way to the entrance to the underworld, and paid Charon the ferryman two coins for her return trip. Proserpine provided the dose as pleaded by Psyche, and she set off on her return. Eventually Jupiter had a proper wedding arranged for Psyche and Cupid, and everything was regularised.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), Psyché (1886), oil on canvas, 52 x 82 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Luminais chooses to show what is probably the key moment in the whole novel, and a peripeteia of sorts: Psyche, picked out in white and clutching the pyxis in both hands, being rowed across to the underworld by Charon, with a boatful of the dead. She stares straight at the viewer, an unusual and powerful pictorial choice.

The Abduction (1887-9)

A recurring theme in other paintings, including the next, is that of the ‘primitive’ carrying off an abducted woman. Just as the British have a stereotype of Vikings landing and carrying away many of their women, so there are parallels with warring tribes throughout Europe.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), The Abduction (1887-9), oil on canvas, 220.5 × 157 cm, National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, via Wikimedia Commons.

What makes this painting unusual is that both the abductor, a well-muscled man with red hair (indicating Celtic roots), and the abducted, a shapely young woman with long black hair, are completely naked. Once again Luminais paints the horse bearing them with finesse, as it wades across the river towards the opposite bank.

Norman Pirates of the Ninth Century (1894)

To the British, the Normans, who invaded Britain following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, were French. In truth they had also invaded the north (Channel) coast of France from their Norse origins, and were as alien to the French as to the British. Set in the ninth century, before the Duchy of Normandy became established as a fiefdom in 911, this painting shows Norsemen busy doing what the stereotype holds as their characteristic activity: coming by sea, landing, raping and pillaging, then carrying off the best of the surviving women, back to their base.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), Norman Pirates of the Ninth Centry (1894), oil on canvas, 189 x 144 cm, Musée Anne-de-Beaujeu, Moulins, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The woman shown being manhandled back to a boat is very fair of skin and has long blonde hair, in contrast to the Normans, who have red and brown hair. In Luminais’ simplified racial code, this would make the men Celtic, which seems puzzling in the context of his other paintings.


Luminais was active, and highly successful in the Salon and commercially, during a time of great change in French painting, with the rise of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. His paintings were hung alongside those of Gérôme, another vividly realistic painter who showed Orientalist and Roman spectacle.

With almost no accessible literature available on Luminais, and a small range of his works available, it is impossible to do him justice. What I see in his Flight of King Gradlon (Quimper) and his Psyché suggests that history has done him great disfavour. I would love to see more of his work.


Wikipedia (in French).
Les Énervés de Jumièges – the strange legend (in French).