The Story in Paintings: Pierre Guérin, the Prix de Rome, and the Death of Cato

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon (1817), oil on canvas, 342 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In the nineteenth century, the revolution in painting brought by the Impressionists targeted the Salon, the annual state-run and heavily-juried exhibition. As the bastion of conservatism and often hackneyed taste, Manet, Monet, and others riled against it, although in their day most of them enjoyed some success – or at least notoriety! – there.

They seemed less concerned with two other organs of the French art establishment: the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and its highest prize for aspiring painters, the Prix de Rome.

At this time, the Prix de Rome had separate categories for architecture, sculture, engraving, and even musical composition. As the most coveted award for a young painter, it had been established in 1663, and its reward was a bursary of 3-5 years at the French Academy in Rome. For many, including Ingres, it was formative and almost guaranteed professional success. It was also even more conservative than the École des Beaux-Arts or the Salon.

The contest for the Prix de Rome in 1797 was very important, as no award had been made over the three previous years because of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. As usual, its jury had set the subject of the final painting, as the death of Cato the Younger, also known as Cato of Utica, a particularly grim episode which reflected the times.

Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (95-46 BCE) was a politician and statesman in the Republic of Rome, a noted Stoic and orator. In an era when corruption in public office was rife, he was one of the few with moral integrity, and championed it openly. When appointed a quaestor (public auditor), one of his first tasks was to prosecute his predecessors for their dishonesty and misappropriation of public funds.

A longstanding critic and opponent of Julius Caesar, he was among those defeated by Caesar in the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BCE and the Battle of Thapsus in 46 BCE, but escaped to Utica in Africa. Unwilling to live in a Rome led by Caesar, Cato committed suicide in April 46 BCE. He attempted to disembowel himself with his sword, but because of a hand injury, failed to inflict a fatal wound. He struggled, fell off the bed, which woke the servants.

As a result, his son, friends, and servants entered the room, and stood in horror at the sight. A physician wished to repair his wounds, but Cato thrust him aside, and tore his abdomen open, dying immediately. This act was seen as a great victory over Caesar’s tyranny, and a symbol for those trying to defend the Republic.

Given the appalling events of the Reign of Terror, the Prix de Rome jury might have thought this story only mildly gruesome, but I suspect it was Cato’s moral high ground which appealed most to them, and the challenge of referring to Cato’s reasons without letting the scene resemble a charnel house. It has also – not unsurprisingly – not been a popular theme for previous painters. Even Caravaggio had probably thought that Judith and Holofernes would get a better reception.

Gioacchino Assereto (1600–1649), The Death of Cato (c 1640), oil on canvas, 203 x 279 cm, Musei di Strada Nuova, Genova, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Back in about 1640, Gioacchino Assereto, a Genoese Caravaggist, had painted The Death of Cato, showing the physician attending, and delicately avoiding gore. Cato’s right hand is clearly injured, and his left pulls at a cloth as his face contorts with pain. Although powerful, it dips only gently into the story and tells us little.

Because this was the first Prix de Rome for several years, the jury awarded three equal first prizes to Louis-André-Gabriel Bouchet, Pierre Bouillon, and Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

Louis-André-Gabriel Bouchet (1759–1842), The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) (1797), oil on canvas, 114 x 144.5 cm, Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Bouchet’s entry is skilfully composed, and employs a strong diagonal formed from outthrust arms bringing the gaze onto Cato’s injured abdomen. Although a powerful moment, it lacks references to preceding or successive events, and is no better in terms of its narrative.

Pierre Bouillon (1776-1831), The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) (1797), oil on canvas, 123 × 163 cm, Musée de Tessé, Le Mans, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Bouillon uses Cato’s outstretched form to make another strong diagonal, but is less directive of the gaze, and less structured altogether. It’s hard to know exactly which moment in the story he is showing us, and the geometric diagrams in the lower right corner are frankly confusing.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) (1797), oil on canvas, 113 x 145 cm, Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Guérin has outstretched arms leading us not to the wound, but to Cato’s head, and he in turn fending the physician away. The two figures on the left don’t appear to contribute a great deal, and the narrative is little clearer.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) (1863), oil on canvas, 158 x 204 cm, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

It took the young Jean-Paul Laurens to try a different approach in 1863, which had probably not been permitted in the Prix de Rome in any case. Laurens uses an earlier moment in the story, as Cato first tries to sink his sword into his belly, when he is quite alone.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833) had been taught by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, and the Prix de Rome was the start of a highly successful career as a history painter and a teacher himself.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), The Return of Marcus Sextus (1799), oil on canvas, 217 x 243 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Guérin’s The Return of Marcus Sextus (1799) had originally been intended to show the blind Belisarius returning to find his wife dead, but that had recently been painted by others. Marcus Sextus was a fictional hero (created by Guérin) who had been a victim of civil war in Rome, banished by Sulla. Returning from his banishment, he finds the body of his wife, and his grieving daughter – a scene which resonated with French citizens who were then returning after the revolutionary terror had subsided.

This painting was shown, to huge acclaim, at the 1799 Salon, and Guérin was publicly crowned as a result. In 1802, JMW Turner made a drawing of it.

As a narrative painting, it follows Alberti’s rules throughout; Marcus Sextus’ face is a superb example of the expression of emotion, and its role in pictorial storytelling.

Sadly Guérin’s studies in Rome were cut short by his health, so he moved on to Naples.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Napoleon Bonaparte Pardoning the Rebels at Cairo, 23rd October 1798 (1808), oil on canvas, 365 × 500 cm, Château de Versailles, Versailles, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1806, Napoleon himself commissioned him to paint for the Gallery of Diana in the Tuileries Palace. Guérin produced Napoleon Bonaparte Pardoning the Rebels at Cairo, 23rd October 1798 (1808).

Napoleon had taken the French army into Egypt in 1798, and conquered Alexandria and Cairo. On 21 October, the citizens of Cairo organised an uprising, and murdered the French commander and Napoleon’s aide-de-camp. The French fought back with artillery, then the cavalry fought their way back into the city, forcing the rebels out into the desert, or into the Great Mosque. Napoleon brought his artillery to bear on the mosque, following which his troops stormed the building, killing or wounding over 5,000.

With control restored over Cairo, the leaders of the revolt were hunted down and executed. Following this, the city was taxed heavily in punishment, and put under military rule.

Guérin’s painting appears to show a quite different event, in which Napoleon is engaged in open discourse with the rebels. However the presence of French cavalry behind the Egyptians, and the action taking place at the far right, suggests the truth behind the ‘pardon’. Not for the first time, history painting has become blatant propaganda.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Aurora and Cephalus (1810), oil on canvas, 254 x 186 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In Greek mythology, there are different accounts of Cephalus, among which is a story that he was an Aeolian who was kidnapped by the goddess of the dawn, Eos (or, in the Roman pantheon, Aurora), when he was out hunting. In spite of his apparent resistance, Eos/Aurora conceived a son by him. Eventually she released Cephalus to return to his earthly family.

Guérin’s fleshy romance Aurora and Cephalus (1810) shows that seduction in remarkably erotic terms. His depiction of Aurora’s arms pushing up the fabric of the heavens, almost like a bridal veil, is innovative.

Oddly, Anne-Louis Girodet (1767-1824), a former pupil of Jacques-Louis David and winner of the Prix de Rome in 1789, painted the same motif in the same year; Girodet had also produced a more accurate depiction of Napoleon’s battle to regain Cairo, in about the same year.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Narcissus, Morpheus and Iris (1811), oil on canvas, 251 × 178 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

He painted another even more explicit erotic romance the following year, showing Narcissus, Morpheus and Iris (1811). Iris, the Greek personification of the rainbow and messenger of the gods, sits at the upper right on a bench of clouds, her ethereal wrap forming her short wings. Morpheus (from whose name is derived morphine), the god of dreams, is the smaller winged figure in the middle, looking up at Iris.

Often omitted from the title of this painting, the sleeping male is Narcissus, whose beauty was so great that he fell in love with his own reflected image. I have been unable to find any mythological accounts which link Narcissus with Iris, although both are flowers.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Aeneas tells Dido the misfortunes of the City of Troy (c 1815), oil on canvas, 292 x 390 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. The Athenaeum.

Guérin returned to more conventional history painting with the likes of Aeneas tells Dido the misfortunes of the City of Troy (c 1815), taken from Virgil’s Aeneid book 4. The hero Aeneas arrives in Carthage on his epic journey following the fall of Troy. Dido, legendary founder and first monarch of Carthage, falls in love with Aeneas. After an intense romance, Aeneas is told by the gods that he must not stay in Carthage, so he leaves with his small fleet of ships. Abandoned, Dido kills herself on her own funeral pyre.

This painting shows the beginnings of the romance, and does not provide clues – such as the presence of Aeneas’ ships – of its tragic outcome. The diminutive beauty being embraced by Dido is probably not intended to be human, although it is unlikely to be Juno or Venus who acted together to make the love affair happen. Jeanne Huet was apparently the model for Dido: she may have been the older sister of painter Paul Huet, later one of Guérin’s pupils.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Phaedra and Hippolytus (1815), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, France. The Athenaeum.

Phaedra and Hippolytus (1815) tells the story of another ill-fated love affair. Although unusually well composed and executed, in accordance with Alberti’s rules, and almost neo-Classical in its crispness, its narrative founders because there are so many different versions of the story.

Theseus was the mythical founder-hero-king of Athens, who married Phaedra, but earlier had a son, Hippolytus, either by the queen of the Amazons or her sister. Hippolytus was, in some versions, sworn to live a chaste life, scorning Aphrodite for Artemis. Phaedra, his stepmother, fell in love with Hippolytus, and (according to Euripides’ version) sent her nurse to tell Hippolytus of that love.

Hippolytus rejected Phaedra’s advances, so she then wrote a note to Theseus claiming that Hippolytus had raped her, and (in some versions) committed suicide. Theseus believed Phaedra’s claim, and cursed Hippolytus, causing his death.

By this time, this story had been told in several different variants, by Euripides, Seneca the Younger, and Jean Racine in plays, and in two operas, as well as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Guérin’s painting shows an angry Theseus sat beside an alarmed Phaedra, on whose lap is a sword. Whispering secrets into Phaedra’s ear is her old nurse. At the left is Artemis/Diana, who holds up her left hand as if to stop Theseus’ thoughts.

Unravelling the story is a complicated task. Clearly Theseus must be angry because of Phaedra’s lie about her rape by Hippolytus, and Artemis must be trying to tell him of Hippolytus’ chastity. Phaedra and her nurse must be discussing the situation, perhaps that Hippolytus has vowed not to reveal who told him of Phaedra’s love for him; the sword on Phaedra’s lap could perhaps be ready for her intended suicide.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon (1817), oil on canvas, 342 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The story in Guérin’s next painting of doomed relationships, Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon (1817), is thankfully taken in part from Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and much clearer. Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae (Argos), and Clytemnestra his wife. She was one of the famous clutch of children produced by Leda, queen of Sparta, when she was impregnated by both Zeus (in the form of a swan) and her husband Tyndareus, who was Clytemnestra’s father.

When Agamemnon was away fighting the Trojan War, Clytemnestra had a love affair with his cousin, Aegisthus. On her husband’s return with Cassandra as his concubine, Aegisthus urged Clytemnestra to murder first Agamemnon, then Cassandra. Although accounts vary of their deaths, in this painting Guérin shows Clytemnestra about to kill her husband while he is asleep in bed, with a short sword. After those murders, Aegisthus and Clytemnestra ruled as king and queen of Mycenae, until Agamemnon’s son Orestes murdered her in turn.

Guérin heightens the drama here with his use of red throughout the canvas, and uses classical narrative devices to great effect.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Sappho on the Leucadian Cliff (date not known), oil on canvas, 188 x 114 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

The Greek poet Sappho is now known for a tiny fraction of the 10,000 or so lines of poetry she is believed to have written, and controversial interpretations of her sexuality. Guérin addresses neither in his Sappho on the Leucadian Cliff, but shows an almost certainly fictional account of her death, by throwing herself from the Leucadian Cliffs (on the Ionian Isles, on the west coast of Greece), apparently for the unrequited love of Phaon, a ferryman.

Guérin paints a portrait of her looking in sad reflection, her head resting on a symbolic lyre. There is little to indicate that she is on the top of cliffs, apart from the title, and no narrative references to the past (her love, or poetry), or her imminent suicide.

In 1822, Guérin became the Director of the French Academy in Rome, and did not return to Paris until 1828, when he was made a Baron. His health then broke down, so he returned to Rome with Horace Vernet, only to die shortly afterwards in 1833. He was buried next to Claude Lorrain, as a mark of the respect which he had earned. Among his many pupils were Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Géricault, Ary Scheffer, and Léon Cogniet.

During the remainder of the century, the Prix de Rome remained stultified in its own past. Once an excellent way to spot and develop talent, it helped prevent narrative painting from addressing its problems, and tried to stifle change in art. It was finally pushed over its Leucadian Cliffs in 1968, a century after it had ceased to have any useful function.