The Painter as History: Ary Scheffer 1

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Greek Women Plead for the Virgin's Help (1826), oil on canvas, 65 x 55 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

In the early nineteenth century, French painting included some of the greatest artists of the period. Jacques-Louis David was in decline prior to his self-imposed exile in Belgium, but the bright new talent included Théodore Géricault, Eugène Delacroix, and the precocious Dutch artist Ary Scheffer (1795–1858).

Scheffer came from a very artistic family in the Netherlands. He entered the Amsterdam Drawing Academy at the age of only eleven, soon moved on to Lille, then to Paris for its École des Beaux-Arts, where he was a pupil of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774-1833), a brilliant history painter in his own right.

He first exhibited at the Salon when still seventeen, in 1812. Although just three years older than Eugène Delacroix, who also trained under Guérin, Scheffer’s style was closer to that of Théodore Géricault, who was four years older than Scheffer and another of Guérin’s painting progeny. Scheffer has been criticised for being “frigidly classical”, something which I hope to dispel in this and the next article.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice (c 1814), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Scheffer’s moving painting of Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice was included in one of those early Salon appearances, in about 1814. It shows the start of the tragic story of Orpheus and Eurydice: very shortly after their wedding, Orpheus’ bride was out in a wood when she was bitten on the ankle by a snake, and died immediately.

The snake is still visible at the far left, as Orpheus cradles her limp body and breaks down in grief. Scheffer’s handling of the complex limb positions is masterful, with the symmetry of their right forearms, and the parallel of her left arm with his left leg. Orpheus’ lyre rests behind his left foot.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), The Death of Saint Louis (c 1817), oil on canvas, 146.6 x 179 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

He developed an early interest in mediaeval history, and his painting of The Death of Saint Louis from about 1817 is one of a pair which commemorate the death of the French King Saint Louis IX (1214-1270), a great reformer who got rid of barbarism from justice, including the banning of trials by ordeal. Louis took part in the seventh and eighth crusades, and died of dysentery during an epidemic which struck the latter.

The painting shows Louis in a tent on the Libyan coast in the throes of death, surrounded by his court, with the high spears of warriors in the left background.

Scheffer rose to prominence during the late 1810s, and by 1820 was close to the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) and politically active. Lafayette had fought with distinction in the American Revolutionary War, reaching the rank of Major-General at the age of 19. Although a liberal and advocate of the abolition of slavery, he had been forced to flee France during the Revolution. He refused to serve in Napoleon’s government, and refused to become dictator during the July Revolution of 1830.

In 1822, Scheffer was appointed drawing teacher to the children of Louis-Philippe, the Duke of Orléans.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), The Death of Théodore Géricault (1824), oil on canvas, 300 x 400 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

As Scheffer was in the ascendant, the health of Géricault was in decline, the result of tuberculosis and a series of falls when he was riding. He finally succumbed after a long illness on 26 January 1824, as shown in Scheffer’s tribute The Death of Théodore Géricault (1824). At the artist’s bedside are his close friends Colonel Bro de Comères and the painter Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy, and the wall of the room is covered by his paintings.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), The Retreat of Napoleon’s Army from Russia in 1812 (1826), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Scheffer continued this morbid series with an account of The Retreat of Napoleon’s Army from Russia in 1812 (1826). This march of death started from Moscow in the middle of October 1812, and took until the middle of December to clear Russian territory. In the appalling winter weather, the Grande Armée is claimed to have shrunk from 100,000 to around 22,000, although those figures remain in dispute. Scheffer captures this suffering very effectively.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Greek Women Plead for the Virgin’s Help (1826), oil on canvas, 65 x 55 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Scheffer became a Philhellene, a lover of Greece, who was moved to depict the suffering of the Greeks during the early nineteenth century. Prior to 1821, Greece had been part of the Ottoman Empire, when in 1821 the Greek War of Independence slowly led to the establishment of the First Hellenic Republic in 1829.

During that war, the Ottoman forces committed a succession of atrocities, including impaling rebel Greeks on spits. Massacres occurred at many sites, including 100,000 mainly Greeks slain at Chios in 1822. It was perhaps the third siege of Missolonghi in late 1825 which inspired Scheffer to paint his Greek Women Plead for the Virgin’s Help the following year.

Outside the mouth of the cave are Ottoman troops, ready to rape and murder the young Greek women kneeling in front of the icon of the Virgin Mary.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), The Souliote Women (1827), media and dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Souliote Women (1827) shows an Eastern Orthodox community in the mountains of Epirus, who had a long history of rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. After fighting the forces of Ali Pasha, the local ruler, in December 1803 they were driven out of their villages and exiled to the Ionian Islands. They went to war very early in the War of Independence, but in 1822 were again forced to surrender. Scheffer could have intended to represent either event, and shows their village burning down in the valley, to the left.

Scheffer was fond of painting great literary narratives as well as history. Sometimes his sources have become obscure: this is true, for example, of the Gothic ballad Lenore, by the German author Gottfried August Bürger, published in 1774.

Set in 1757 following the Battle of Prague, Lenore is a young woman engaged to marry William, who went to that battle in King Frederick’s army. Having heard no news about him, she eagerly awaits the army’s return.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Lenore – The Return of the Army (1829), oil on canvas, 29 x 51.2 cm, Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Scheffer’s painting, Lenore – The Return of the Army from 1829, shows Lenore in the centre, surrounded by other couples reuniting. Her fiancé William is nowhere to be seen, so she starts to quarrel with God, complaining of his unfairness. Her mother apologises to God for her blasphemy, and tells her daughter that William has probably found another woman in Hungary, so she would do best to forget him. We will return to this story in the next article for its surprising development.

On 30 July 1830, following the overthrow of King Charles X, Scheffer and an influential journalist rode from Paris to Orléans – a distance of around 130 km (80 miles) – to invite the Duke of Orléans to lead the resistance, and become ‘King of the French’. He accepted, and reigned from 1830-48.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Louis-Philippe Taking the Oath Before the Chambers, 9 August 1830 (after 1830), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Scheffer recorded the history which he had helped make in his painting of Louis-Philippe Taking the Oath Before the Chambers, 9 August 1830 (after 1830). The new king is here swearing to observe the Constitutional Charter, following which he was given the sceptre, the hand of justice, his crown and sword, in a ceremony intended to replace that of more ancient kings.

Scheffer was also a keen observer of politics more widely in Europe. In November 1830, the partitioned nation of Poland rose up in rebellion against the Russian Empire.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Allegory of the November Uprising (Polonia, 1831) (1831), watercolor and gouache on paper, 49.6 × 39 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

That inspired Scheffer to his Allegory of the November Uprising (Polonia, 1831), in which Polonia, the personification of the Polish nation, is being brutally trampled on in the suppression which followed that November Uprising. By October 1831, the Russians had suppressed the rebellion, integrated Poland into the Empire, and even closed the university in Warsaw.