Poussin’s Inheritance: the 400th anniversary of Charles Le Brun 2

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), The Adoration of the Shepherds (1689), oil on canvas, 151 × 213 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Four hundred years ago today, the French painter and art theorist Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) was born in Paris. In the first article of this pair, yesterday, I traced his history and work up to the 1650s.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), Everhard Jabach (1618–1695) and His Family (c 1660), oil on canvas, 280 x 328 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Le Brun painted many portraits of leading figures in the French court of the day, among them Everhard Jabach (1618–1695) and His Family (c 1660). Jabach had been born in Cologne in Germany, but settled in France when he was twenty, and became naturalised as a French subject. He was an opulent banker who became a director of the French East India Company, and a leading collector of artworks – including paintings by Rubens, Raphael, Poussin and Le Brun. Here he is surrounded by his family, and some of his works of art.

That year, Colbert, the Minister of Finance, and Le Brun established Les Gobelins, which rapidly became the leading maker of tapestries in Europe. Le Brun remained a director, and through its manufacture of furniture for the court, became the originator of Louis XIV Style. Tapestry manufacture and his style long outlasted him, and had influence over the whole of Europe.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), Chancellor Séguier at the Entry of Louis XIV into Paris in 1660 (c 1661), oil on canvas, 290 x 350 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by Sammyday, via Wikimedia Commons.

On 26 August 1660, Louis XIV made his triumphal entry into the city of Paris, following his marriage to Marie-Thérèse on 9 June. In recognition of the support Le Brun had received from Pierre Séguier in his youth, he painted his patron and protector Chancellor Séguier at the Entry of Louis XIV into Paris in 1660 in about 1661. I find this notable for the use of honorific parasols: as Chancellor, Séguier was dignified with two of them.

Le Brun painted at least two major series, the first showing the life of Hercules, and the second – for the royal palaces – the Battles of Alexander the Great, hero to Louis XIV.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), The Queens of Persia at the Feet of Alexander, or The Tent of Darius (date not known), oil on canvas, 298 x 453 cm, Château de Versailles, Versailles, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Le Brun’s account of The Queens of Persia at the Feet of Alexander, also called The Tent of Darius, is quite faithful to the story told by Plutarch in his Lives, in placing this event in Dareius’ abandoned tent. The women look fearful of the fate that awaits them, not knowing how Alexander would treat them. At the time, the most likely outcome would have been death or slavery as ‘courtesans’, but Alexander instead accorded them all the honour and dignity of a royal family.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), Alexander Entering Babylon (1665), oil on canvas, 450 x 707 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

His Alexander Entering Babylon from 1665 shows the Macedonian king riding in a large golden chariot hauled by a small elephant, as the great spoils of war were being shown around them.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), Alexander and Porus (1665), oil on canvas, 470 x 1264 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Le Brun’s vast painting of the battle between Alexander and Porus (1665) shows Alexander, to the right of centre with the exuberant plumes on his helmet, conversing with the captive Porus, who is being carried by Macedonian soldiers. Around and beyond is the aftermath of the great battle, with corpses of dead elephants, and the remains of Porus’ camp.

In 1667, the Académie Royale de Peinture at de Sculpture (with Le Brun at its helm) organised a series of lectures and debates about the paintings of Nicolas Poussin. One complete session, led personally by Le Brun, examined Poussin’s masterpiece The Israelites Gathering the Manna in the Desert from 1637-39. Le Brun’s keynote lecture for this was published in a collection from that meeting, and in Poussin’s biography. It has been the basis for research, comment, and debate ever since.

In his later years, Le Brun and his assistants were occupied in painting the Halls of War and Peace and the Great Hall of Mirrors in the palace at Versailles, and painting the Gallery of Apollo in the Louvre.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), Capture of the City and Citadel of Gand in Six Days, 1678 (1681-84), oil on canvas, 600 x 400 cm, Château de Versailles, Yvelines, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The Capture of the City and Citadel of Gand in Six Days, 1678 painted between 1681-84 is one of his works in the Hall of War, and shows the brief attack on the Belgian city of Ghent, I believe.

In 1683, Le Brun’s close friend in government, Colbert, died. His successor the Marquis de Louvois showed him no favour, and Le Brun’s health went into decline. As so often seems the case, Le Brun turned increasingly to religious works in these final years.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), The Fall of the Rebel Angels (before 1685), oil on canvas, 162 x 129 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, Dijon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

He is believe to have painted The Fall of the Rebel Angels before 1685. This shows the outcome of the apocalyptic war fought in heaven which led to Satan being cast out, and with him those angels who had chosen to follow him rather than God. Le Brun adopts an antique tiered composition, at the top of which is the archangel Michael, with the devil as a great dragon in descent from there, and rebel angels writing with serpents at the foot.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), The Adoration of the Shepherds (1689), oil on canvas, 151 × 213 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

One of his last paintings, The Adoration of the Shepherds from 1689 achieves a marvellous luminosity not seen in Le Brun’s earlier work, and perhaps pointed towards what he saw as the future of painting.

After several years of deteriorating health, Le Brun died in Paris on 22 February 1690, just two days before what would have been his seventy-first birthday.