Painting Truth: When did she emerge from a well?

Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry (1828–1886), Truth (c 1879), oil, dimensions not known, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

At the very end of the nineteenth century, there was a sudden rush of paintings depicting the personification of Truth as a nude woman climbing from a well. They came apparently from nowhere, were popular for a decade or so, then vanished.

Look back 200-300 years earlier, in the heyday of allegories, and you’ll find plenty of paintings of Truth in other guises, but hardly any showing her naked, bearing a mirror in one hand, and climbing out of a well.

All three of the quite celebrated paintings made between 1896 and 1901 were made in France by French artists, in Salon style, rather than the post-Impressionism which is now associated with that period. The explanation normally given for their production is the Dreyfus affair, which corroded politics in France between 1894 and 1906.

Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason in December 1894, for passing French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, and was imprisoned in the notorious Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guiana, from which few ever returned. After a further investigation in 1896, which revealed another Army officer as the culprit, new evidence was suppressed, leading to the acquittal of that officer, and clumsy attempts were made to charge Dreyfus with additional crimes.

France divided in its support for Dreyfus, and the famous novelist Émile Zola published his notorious article J’accuse! in 1898, which resulted in him effectively being banished to Britain for a year.

Although the Dreyfus affair was very much about truth and its suppression, it had nothing to do with nude women climbing out of wells. This article explores whether that motif should have become associated with the wrongful conviction of a French Jewish artillery officer. Unusually, I am going to work back through time in my quest.

Luc-Olivier Merson (1846–1920), Truth (1901), oil on canvas, 221 x 372 cm, Hotel Watel-Dehaynin, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The last of this group of paintings is Luc-Olivier Merson’s Truth from 1901, which is full of ornate Art Nouveau decoration. The personification of Truth here sits naked as the day she was born, under the Latin inscription for truth, veritas. At the left is an artist with palette and brushes, below a musician and poet with a lyre, and at the right a scientist-philosopher with his globe of the stars.

Look carefully at where Truth is sitting, though, and she is actually on an ornate stone wellhead. The darkness of the top of the well is just visible to each side of her buttocks, and below her feet water dribbles gently from the mouth of a lion, to form a small stream. The winged putto who is holding her left arm is raising her mirror in his left hand. Behind his feet is the large pot on a rope which would be lowered into the well to obtain water.

Édouard Debat-Ponsan (1847–1913), Nec mergitur, or Truth Leaving the Well (1898), media and dimensions not known, Hôtel de ville d’Amboise, Amboise, France. Wikimedia Commons.

I have recently shown Édouard Debat-Ponsan’s Nec mergitur, or Truth Leaving the Well from 1898. He was firmly convinced of the innocence of Dreyfus, and is believed to have painted this work as his bold public statement in support. Its key elements – the nude woman emerging from a well brandishing her mirror – are very clear. Two archaic figures are trying to restrain her emergence, as symbols of the Catholic clerical and military establishments at the time.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Truth Coming out of her Well to Shame Mankind (1896), oil on canvas, 91 x 72 cm, Musée Anne-de-Beaujeu, Moulins, France. Wikimedia Commons.

As I pointed out, Debat-Ponsan had been beaten to this allegory by Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1896, with his Truth Coming out of her Well to Shame Mankind. This is apparently based on a quotation attributed to Democritus, “Of a truth we know nothing, for truth is in a well” (or, more literally, ‘in an abyss’). She isn’t carrying a mirror, but a whip with which ‘to chastise mankind’.

There are problems in trying to associate this painting with the Dreyfus affair.

This is actually the second version of this theme which Gérôme painted, the original dating from the previous year, before the suppression of new evidence which should have acquitted Dreyfus, and long before Zola’s J’accuse! of 1898. The title he had given that earlier work was Mendacibus et histrionibus occisa in puteo jacet alma Veritas, which translates as ‘The nurturer Truth lies in a well, having been killed by liars and actors’.

Gérôme used the same allusion in his preface to Émile Bayard’s posthumous collection of collotype plates of photographs of nudes, Le Nu esthétique. L’Homme, la Femme, L’Enfant. Album de documents artistiques inédits d’après Nature, which was published in 1902:
Photography is an art. It forces artists to discard their old routine and forget their old formulas. It has opened our eyes and forced us to see that which previously we have not seen; a great and inexpressible service for Art. It is thanks to photography that Truth has finally come out of her well. She will never go back.

Truth Coming out of her Well was Gérôme’s favourite painting in his later life, and when he died in his studio in 1904, it was within reach.

Lucien Pallez (Lucien Lamesfeld) (1853-1933), Truth (1883), plaster miniature of marble original, dimensions and location not known, remains of original in Parc de la Tête d’Or, Lyon, France. Image by G. Michelez, via Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know whether Gérôme or Debat-Ponsan had ever seen it, but Lucien Pallez had made a figure of Truth in 1883 which is still in the Parc de la Tête d’Or in Lyon, France. Sadly his original is now in a sorry state, but this plaster replica shows her in full glory.

Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry (1828–1886), Truth (c 1879), oil, dimensions not known, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In turn, Pallez may have seen Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry’s painting of Truth from about 1879. Gérôme undoubtedly knew of Baudry’s work, as it was he who made a statue of Baudry in La Roche-sur-Yon in 1897.

Jules Lefebvre (1834–1912), Truth (1870), oil on canvas, 265 x 112 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

I suspect that Gérôme at least had seen Jules Lefebvre’s Truth from 1870, the year of the start of the Franco-Prussian War. Here, she is naked and bearing her mirror, but her well seems to have been lost in the gloom behind her. The crucial clue is given in the rope which she holds in her left hand. This painting is thought to have been a major influence on Frédéric Bartholdi, who that year made the first small model of his sculpture which was to be presented to the US as the Statue of Liberty – Truth fully clothed.

So the window in which these images appeared with frequency has already widened to 1870-1901.

François Lemoyne (1688–1737), Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy (1737), oil, dimensions not known, Wallace Collection, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Looking back further, the previous depiction of Truth in similar circumstances is the most mysterious of them all. François Lemoyne (1688–1737) was a brilliant, highly accomplished and successful Rococo painter who suddenly committed suicide on 4 June 1737, when he was only 39. For reasons which remain obscure, the day after he finished painting Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy (1737) for a friend and patron, Lemoyne stabbed himself in the chest and throat nine times before he collapsed and died.

Lemoyne’s Truth has no mirror, and is being borne aloft by winged Father Time, who holds his scythe in the other hand. Behind them is the unmistakable marble lip of a well, from which she has presumably emerged, only to be confronted by Falsehood and Envy, whose personification Time is pushing to the ground.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Triumph of Truth (from the Medici Cycle) (1622-25), oil on canvas, 394 x 160 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Similar paintings of Time saving Truth are not uncommon: this is Peter Paul Rubens’ The Triumph of Truth, painted as part of his Medici Cycle, between 1622-25. But the mirror and well are missing: were they introduced by the tragic Lemoyne and Lefebvre?

Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), An Allegory of Truth and Time (1584), oil on canvas, 130 x 169.6 cm, Royal Collection of the United Kingdom, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The answer, according to Annibale Carracci’s Allegory of Truth and Time from 1584 is a convincing no. The winged Father Time now bears no scythe but is still putting his shoulder to Truth to raise her from the well. She is clutching a mirror in her right hand.

Trampled under the feet of Truth is the strangely chimeral two-faced figure of Deceit. The two figures framing the image are more controversial: the official identification gives them as Good Luck or Happiness on the left, and Happy Ending on the right. That on the left bears a winged caduceus and a cornucopia (horn of plenty), which is an unusual combination which may allude to good health as well as abundant food. That on the right is scattering Spring flowers, which might relate her to Flora.

There doesn’t appear to be any visual precedent to Carracci’s image, which must therefore be the presumptive start of this curious painted mythography. Interestingly, the first recorded occurrence of the phrase the naked truth is in the year after Carracci’s painting (1585). All this is a far cry from the Drefus affair, except perhaps in its message that all’s well that ends well.

And the fact that, given time, the truth will emerge.


Wikipedia on Gérôme’s painting.