The great French landscape and narrative painter Nicolas Poussin worked for most of his career in Rome. Between 1642-46, Poussin taught one of his few pupils in his studio in Rome, the brilliant young Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), who was born four hundred years ago tomorrow. Le Brun was dubbed the greatest French artist of all time, by none other than Louis XIV. Yet today, he isn’t known well, and is surely obscure compared to his master.
In this article and tomorrow’s, I will celebrate Le Brun’s life and work, in honour of this great anniversary.
Charles Le Brun was born in Paris, and as a child his drawing skills were noticed by Chancellor Séguier, who had him apprenticed to the painter Simon Vouet at the age of eleven. Four years later he was commissioned by the notorious Cardinal Richelieu. Nicolas Poussin was in Paris at the time, and was so impressed with Le Brun’s early work that he took him back to Rome as a pupil.
Soon after Le Brun had arrived in Rome, he started work on this painting of Horatius Cocles Defending the Bridge (c 1642-43). This tells the story of the fearless Roman who, according to legend, single-handedly fought off the attack of Lars Porsena’s troops as they tried to capture Rome.
Horatius is putting up his spirited fight on a stone pier on the side of the bridge opposite the city, as Romans are hastily removing the wooden bridge behind him. Above and behind Horatius, Minerva, goddess of battle, grasping her characteristic staff, holds a laurel wreath over Horatius’ head. In the foreground, the god of the River Tiber lounges on the bank, pouring water from his large flagon (which never becomes empty). It can only be a matter of minutes before the bridge is adequately broken, and Horatius can abandon its defence.
Continuing his Roman theme, he then painted The Deification of Aeneas in about 1642-44. This shows a much earlier stage in the history of Rome, when Aeneas, hero of Virgil’s epic Aeneid, was turned into a god. Le Brun’s account is a faithful depiction from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with the river god Numicus sat in the front, and Venus anointing Aeneas with ambrosia and nectar to make him immortal as the god Jupiter Indiges. At the right is Venus’ mischievous son Cupid, trying on Aeneas’s armour, and the chariot towed by white doves is ready to take the hero up to join the gods.
Le Brun also painted several major religious works, of which this Pietà from 1643-45 is probably one of the earliest. The Virgin Mary’s cloak is painted, as is traditional, using ultramarine, suggesting that this was a valuable commission, given the pigment’s high cost.
Towards the end of his time in Rome, Le Brun painted this work showing Daedalus and Icarus (1645-46). This shows the master artificer Daedalus fastening wings made of feathers and wax on his son Icarus’ back, prior to their ill-fated flight of escape from Crete.
Given Poussin’s emphasis on capturing the moment of peripeteia, the change in fortune, and his own carefully-composed narrative paintings, I have to wonder whether this work had a pendant which completed the story with the downfall and drowning of Icarus, after he flew too close to the sun and his wings fell apart.
After four years in Poussin’s studio in Rome, Le Brun returned to Paris, where his work was in great demand by highly-placed patrons.
Shortly before or after his departure from Rome, Le Brun painted this account of the Suicide of Cato the Younger. Although it departs from Plutarch’s description in his Lives, given Cato’s great integrity and the intrigues of the French court into which Le Brun entered, it is an interesting work for this time in his life.
The following year, Le Brun painted The Sacrifice of Polyxena, the youngest daughter of King Priam of Troy. According to the plays of Euripides, she was sacrificed at the foot of Achilles’ grave to appease the winds so that the Greek fleet could set sail to return after the destruction of Troy. Polyxena is here being led to the altar as Hecuba, her mother, tries to hold her back. Behind Polyxena is the same Neoptolemus who threw Astyanax to his death, threatening to kill her where she is.
At about the same time, Le Brun tackled one of the great and most difficult motifs of the Christian Passion, the Descent from the Cross (c 1647). Although a fine painting, there is considerable distance between this and Rubens’ quite early but masterly version painted for the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp in 1612-14.
Le Brun was involved in several major changes in art in France. Together with Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finance, he took control of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1648, and reformed it.
In about 1655, he painted this more lighthearted tondo showing Venus Clipping Cupid’s Wings. At the back is the personification of Truth, who has emerged from her well at the left, and holds her eternal flame, just as in the Statue of Liberty.
In the next article, tomorrow, I will explain Le Brun’s most enduring work of art.