The Last History Painter: In memoriam Jean-Paul Laurens 1

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Deliverance of Prisoners of Carcassonne (1879), oil on canvas, 430 x 350 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne, Carcassonne, France. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921) was one of the last traditional history painters in Europe, alongside the likes of Gérôme and Rochegrosse. Like them, he continued to paint large canvases in strict Salon style until well into the twentieth century, to the continuing acclaim of the ruling classes. His narrative style was, though, quite different.

He started his training in the École Supérieur des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse, then gained a place at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied under Léon Cogniet and Alexandre Bida. A strong republican and opponent of clericism, he had a particular interest in mediaeval French history which came to dominate his choice of subjects for painting.

In the late 1800s he was commissioned to paint series of large historical works for major buildings. In 1882, he painted murals showing Saint Genevieve (c 419/422-502/512 CE), the patron saint of Paris, in the Panthéon of Paris. Between 1891 and 1896 he painted for the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, then from 1892-1902 he made a series of large murals for the Capitole in Toulouse. Sadly, those large paintings don’t photograph well, and can only really be appreciated by seeing in the flesh.

Laurens taught for much of his career in the Académie Julian and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

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.

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 and 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.

It took the young Jean-Paul Laurens to try a novel approach in 1863 to this notoriously difficult motif. He chose an early moment in the story, as Cato first tries to sink his sword into his belly, when he is quite alone.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), The Death of Tiberius (1864), oil on canvas, 176.4 x 222.3 cm, Musée Paul-Dupuy, Toulouse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman Emperor Tiberius (42 BCE – 37 CE) ruled from 14 CE until his death. Known best for his military achievements, as a ruler he was dark, reclusive, and sombre. Following the death of his son, he left Rome in the hands of two prefects known for being unscrupulous.

The histories of Tacitus claim that the Roman crowd rejoiced when they heard of his death, and again at the suggestion that he had been smothered by Caligula (who succeeded him) and one of his prefects. On his death, the Senate refused to grant him divine honours which were traditionally awarded to dead emperors, and mobs called for his body to be unceremoniously dumped in the River Tiber.

In The Death of Tiberius (1864), Laurens shows the old man, swathed in his robes, presumably with Caligula or the Prefect Macro at his side. The younger man appears to be pressing on Tiberius’ chest, but not strangling or smothering him. Tiberius’ right hand reaches up towards the younger man, where it locks with his right hand, although it’s not clear what either hand is trying to do. The younger man’s left knee is folded, resting against Tiberius’ right abdomen.

The implication seems to be that Caligula/Macro is helping Tiberius on his way, but the body language is confused. Laurens’s timing seems slightly early too, in that it doesn’t give any clear indication of whether Caligula/Macro is about to murder Tiberius. This may, of course, have been deliberate, as a means of suggesting the possibility but not confirming it.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Pope Formosus and Stephen VI (the “Cadaver Synod”) (1870), oil, 100 x 152 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In Pope Formosus and Stephen VI (the “Cadaver Synod”) (1870), Laurens tells one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of the papacy. When he died, Pope Formosus was succeeded by Boniface VI, then by Stephen VI (or VII!). Stephen sought to annul the acts of Formosus, so in 897 had him tried posthumously before an ecclesiastical court in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. Stephen accused Formosus of perjury and having succeeded to the papacy illegally.

Inevitably Formosus’ corpse was unable to defend the case effectively, and Pope Stephen had it pronounced guilty, then ordered that Formosus’ papacy was declared null and void, and his acts invalid. The latter was strange, as they included ordination of Stephen as a bishop. Eventually the body of Formosus, which had been propped up in his papal vestments in the court, was mutilated and dumped in the River Tiber.

The body of Formosus then apparently washed up on the bank, and promptly started to perform miracles. After a public uprising, Stephen was deposed and imprisoned, then strangled whilst in jail. At the end of the year, his successor Pope Theodore II held another synod which annulled the ‘Cadaver Synod’, and rehabilitated Formosus. Finally the successor Pope Sergius III, who had taken part in the Cadaver Synod, reversed the decision again, and reaffirmed the posthumous conviction of Formosus.

Laurens shows this bizarre trial in progress. The rotting corpse of Formosus has been dressed in his papal finery and propped up in a throne. A thurible placed in the foreground burns incense to control the smell. Pope Stephen (presumably) stands pointing at the body of Formosus as a witness is being examined, in front of the synod of bishops. Although this appears relatively static, it’s probably as close to a climax as such court proceedings were likely to come.

Portrait de femme en robe noire
Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Portrait of a Woman in a Black Holding a Glove (1874), oil on canvas, 103 x 87 cm, Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Laurens also painted portraits, of which few are now accessible. This Portrait of a Woman in a Black Holding a Glove from 1874 is almost photorealistic in its fine detail. I have no idea who his sitter was, I’m afraid.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875), oil on canvas, 130 x 218 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. By Rama, via Wikimedia Commons.

Robert II (972-1031), also known as Robert the Pious or Wise, ruled the Franks from 996 until his death. Notoriously religious, he conducted a long campaign against heretics, supporting riots against the Jewish community of Orléans, and burning heretics at the stake. However, he was less successful in marriage. His first (arranged) marriage to Rozala of Italy ended in divorce around 996, following which he married Bertha of Burgundy, his cousin.

Pope Gregory V refused to sanction the marriage. Robert’s refusal to annul the marriage led to his excommunication, which was performed in full mediaeval style, ‘with bell, book, and candle’. That involved the tolling of a bell, closure of the Book of the Gospels, and snuffing out a candle, in a formal ceremony. Long negotiations with the next Pope, Sylvester II, were unsuccessful, and Robert’s marriage to Bertha was eventually annulled.

Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875) shows King Robert II sat on his throne, with Bertha huddled next to him, as the procession of clerics leaves the room. The only sign providing any clue to what might have happened is a very large candle resting on the floor in front of the couple, having just been snuffed out. Otherwise the large and regal hall is deserted.

Lübbren terms this ‘inanimate narration’, in that the key narrative object, the candle, is inanimate. Although subtle, it is an effective technique for telling this story, which lacks any real climax or moment of peripeteia.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Funeral of William the Conqueror (1876), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Béziers, Béziers, France. Image by Tylwyth Eldar, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1876, Laurens painted a slightly better-known event in European history, the Funeral of William the Conqueror. King William I, sometimes referred to as William the Bastard, was the Duke of Normandy when he invaded England in 1066. He defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, and in that led the Norman Conquest.

As so often happens, early success didn’t last long. He spent the rest of his reign struggling to hold onto his kingdom, both in England and France, and fell ill or was injured when fighting the French for Mantes in July 1087. He was taken to Rouen, where he died on 9 September. Those who had been by his deathbed quickly scattered, leaving the clergy to have his body transferred to Caen for burial.

William’s funeral was attended by his son Henry, and the bishops and abbots of Normandy. The ceremony was interrupted by a local citizen who claimed that the land the church had been built on had been illegally seized from his family, the moment chosen by Laurens. That was quickly settled in his favour, but as the king’s body was being finally lowered into its grave, it proved too large; when it was forcibly squeezed into the hole, the rotting corpse ruptured, filling the church with its offensive odour.

Beux-Arts de Carcassonne - La Délivrance des emmurés de Carcassonne 1879 - Jean Paul Laurens
Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Deliverance of Prisoners of Carcassonne (1879), oil on canvas, 430 x 350 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne, Carcassonne, France. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

Laurens painted at least two scenes from the troubled history of the fortress town of Carcassonne, in south-west France. The first, Deliverance of Prisoners of Carcassonne, he completed in 1879 and exhibited successfully at the Salon that year. During the thirteenth century, Carcassonne had been a stronghold of an unusual sect, the Occitan Cathars, who were Gnostic Christians. With this history of unconventional religion, towards the end of that century, the town was excommunicated and the Inquisition set about trying to reform its inhabitants.

Bernard Délicieux (c 1265-1320) was a Spiritual Franciscan friar who stood firm against the Inquisitors under Jean de Picquigny, who had support from troops. In 1303, following a riot, Délicieux intervened and arranged for those who had been confined, immured in the inquisitor’s jail to be transferred to the royal jail, as shown in this scene. Délicieux stands to the left of centre facing the crowd, as Jean de Picquigny with his signature red wristlets supervises the opening of the jail.


Wikipedia (French).

Lübbren N (2016) Eloquent objects: Gérôme, Laurens and the art of inanimate narration, chapter 8 in Cooke P & Lübbren (eds) Paint and Narrative in France, from Poussin to Gaugin, Routledge. ISBN 978 1 4724 4010 5.
Sérié P (2016) Theatricality versus anti-theatricality, narrative techniques in French history painting (1850-1900), chapter 10 in Cooke P & Lübbren (eds) Paint and Narrative in France, from Poussin to Gaugin, Routledge. ISBN 978 1 4724 4010 5.