The Last History Painter: In memoriam Jean-Paul Laurens 2

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), The Death of Galeswintha (1906), oil on canvas, 65.5 x 85 cm, National Museum of Fine Arts, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts, via Wikimedia Commons.

A hundred years ago today, 23 March 1921, the last traditional history painter in Europe, Jean-Paul Laurens, died. In the first article of these two commemorating his death, I showed a selection of his paintings up to 1880. This second article concludes my account.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), The Last Moments of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico (1882), oil on canvas, 222 x 303 cm, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

Having concentrated on relatively obscure moments in mediaeval history, in 1882 Laurens tried a more contemporary story about the recent European misadventure in North America. Maximilian became Emperor of Mexico in 1864, although he was the son of Archduke Franz Karl of Austria and Princess Sophie of Bavaria, and had served in the Austrian Navy. He installed himself as Emperor at the invitation of Napoleon III, who had invaded Mexico in 1861 as part of the War of the French Intervention.

However, Maximilian was strongly opposed by forces who remained loyal to Mexico’s deposed president, and when Napoleon withdrew French troops in 1866, Maximilian’s rule collapsed. He was captured the following year, court-martialled, and executed by firing squad with two of his generals on 19 June 1867. Appeals by the leaders of Europe for clemency were ignored, and Maximilian even turned down the offer of escape, which would have required him to remove his beard.

In The Last Moments of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, Laurens shows Maximilian comforting the priest who has come to his cell prior to his execution, while another man (presumably a servant) is on his knees and fervently grasping Maximilian’s left hand. The door to the cell is wide open, and on its threshold stands a Mexican officer in his finest dress, complete with a sword, bearing the orders for the execution to take place.

Although a pale shadow of any depiction of the execution itself, Laurens’ reversal of roles – where Maximilian is comforting the priest whose role is to comfort the condemned man – introduces an unusual twist.

Édouard Manet (1832–1883), The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico (1868), oil on canvas, 252 x 305 cm, Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Manet’s famous earlier paintings of this contemporary story were more direct and explicit, showing the moment of execution – the obvious climax. Apart from the wry role reversal, it isn’t clear why Laurens didn’t opt for such a dramatic moment.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), The Agitator of Languedoc (1887), oil on canvas, 116 x 149 cm, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1887, Laurens returned to the theme of Bernard Délicieux and the history of Carcassone. Eventually Délicieux’s campaign against the Inquisition caught up with him. In 1317 he was summoned to Avignon, where he was arrested, interrogated, and tortured for a year. He was taken back to Carcassone for trial in 1319, found guilty of some of the charges, and sentenced to life in solitary confinement. He died in prison the following year.

Laurens chooses another courtroom scene to show this story. Délicieux, the Agitator himself, stands in front of the five judges of the Inquisition, pointing with his right index finger, the arm stretched out, at a witness during his trial. The witness stands in a shaft of light, pouring in through the barred window above, and is reading from some sheets of paper. It’s not easy to tell, or to guess, what Délicieux might be saying.

Most of Laurens’ history paintings should make us think more deeply about the past, and what we should learn from it. But they’re hardly controversial. In 1893, Laurens had the chance to paint something which even today remains controversial, with the centenary of one of the bloodiest periods in recent French history, the War in the Vendée. Over the course of about three years, during the French Revolution, royalist counter-revolutionaries to the south of the River Loire were massacred in their tens of thousands.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Daughter of Bonchamps, or Long Live the King! (1893), oil on canvas, 138.4 x 183.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Laurens’ choice may seem inappropriate: in the Daughter of Bonchamps, or Long Live the King! (1893), he shows the young daughter of one of the Vendean generals, Zoé Bonchamps. Her father decided the fate of five thousand Republican prisoners who were confined in the Abbey of Saint-Florent-le-Vieil in October 1793. Instead of retaliatory execution, the General ordered them to be pardoned and freed in one of the few acts of clemency in a bitter three years.

In later years, Zoé Bonchamps was to meet the Emperor, learn that her husband, tried in his absence, had been sentenced to death, and more. She has emerged as one of the few heroes of this black period. Laurens shows every one of the six men present transfixed by young Zoé.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Saint John Chrysostom and Empress Eudoxia (1893), oil on canvas, 131 x 164 cm, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Saint John Chrysostom (c 349-407 CE) was Archbishop of Constantinople from 397, and one of the early fathers of the Christian Church. An ascetic, his refusal to host lavish social gatherings made him very popular with the people, but unpopular with clergy and the rich. He denounced extravagance in women’s dress, which brought him into conflict with the wife of Emperor Arcadius, Aelia Eudoxia, who considered that his criticism was aimed at herself.

She organised a synod in 403, the ‘Synod of the Oak’, to charge John, and he was deposed and banished as a result. This resulted in riots, and the mob threatened to burn the royal palace. The Emperor called for John to return, and he was reinstated. However, John then denounced as pagan the dedication ceremonies which took place when a silver statue of Eudoxia was erected near his cathedral. John was banished for a second time.

In Saint John Chrysostom and Empress Eudoxia (1893), Laurens shows John standing at a high lectern remote from a balcony in a huge hall. He is dressed in white robes with prominent crucifixes, and is gesticulating wildly with his left arm. He looks towards Empress Eudoxia; she is dressed in lavish gold clothing, standing at the front of the balcony, and looking impassively into the distance above him.

Although a dramatic scene which uses the distance between John and Eudoxia, Laurens’ composition results in both the actors appearing small within the enormity of the space in the hall, making it harder to read their body language and lessening its impact.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Toulouse Fortifies its Defences to Resist Simon de Montfort 1218 (1899), mural, dimensions not known, Salle des illustres au Capitole de Toulouse, Toulouse, France. By Guérin Nicolas, via Wikimedia Commons.

Simon IV of Montfort (c 1175-1218), fifth Earl of Leicester, was a French noble who took part in the Fourth Crusade (1202-4), and held sway in much of the south of France (le Midi). In 1215, he had acquired extensive new territories in Toulouse and Narbonne, and was declared Count of Toulouse.

To secure his rule, he spent two years fighting in the area, laying siege to Beaucaire in 1216. He then partially sacked Toulouse, and returned there in the autumn of 1217 intending to capture the city. After nine months of siege, Simon was killed when his head was smashed by a rock hurled from the city’s defences.

Laurens’s Toulouse Fortifies its Defences to Resist Simon de Montfort 1218 (1899) shows this frantic work being carried out by men and women alike, to strengthen the walls of the city, including the erection of a shelter on the top of a tower, weapons for hurling rocks at the enemy, and more.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), The Death of Galeswintha (1906), oil on canvas, 65.5 x 85 cm, National Museum of Fine Arts, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts, via Wikimedia Commons.

Galswintha (540-568 CE), or Galeswintha, was the daughter of the Visigoth king of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), and sister of Brunhilda, Queen of Austrasia (Belgium across to Germany). She married King Chilperic I, the Merovingian ruler of Neustria (northern France), in 567.

However, marriage didn’t suit Chilperic’s mistress, Fredegund, who arranged for Galswintha to be strangled so that she could marry the king. Galswintha’s murder caused her sister Brunhilda to make war against Chilperic, which lasted for some forty years. In turn, Chilperic was murdered in 584, possibly by Fredegund. Galswintha was honoured in a long commemorative poem written by the late Latin poet Venantius Fortunatus, which may have been Laurens’ inspiration.

In The Death of Galeswintha (1906), Laurens shows Galswintha lying, presumably dead, in a heavy-built four-poster bed, its curtains partly drawn back. A young well-dressed woman (presumably Fredegund) views her from the foot of the bed. Fredegund is partly undressed, her right shoulder and much of her back bare, as if she too is just getting ready for bed. Just outside the room, on the other side of a drawn curtain, is a man, who looks in through a gap in that curtain. He is presumably King Chilperic waiting for his mistress to join him, now that he is a widower and free to marry her.

Although a subtle painting which requires detective work to discover its story, this is perhaps one of Laurens’s best narratives.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Security Committee of the City of Paris and the Département of the Seine, during the 1914-18 War (1918), oil, 178 x 218 cm, Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

By the end of the Great War, Laurens’s style had modernised slightly. Rather than tackle any of the major battlefield scenes, his 1918 memento of those four grim years was the strange municipal painting of the Security Committee of the City of Paris and the Département of the Seine, during the 1914-18 War.

There is one significant painting of his for which I lack a date.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), Faust (date not known), oil on canvas, 53.9 x 64.7 cm, Rio Grande do Sul Museum of Art, Porto Alegre, Brazil. Wikimedia Commons.

His interpretation of Geothe’s Faust shows him as being much older than others.


Laurens’ response to the evident crisis in history painting was as puzzling as some of his paintings. Unlike Jean-Léon Gérôme, he avoided the spectacular, and the gruesome of Georges Rochegrosse. Instead Laurens revelled in relatively unknown nooks of European mediaeval history between 568 and 1319. I suspect that most of those who viewed these paintings at the Salon didn’t know the stories which they depict. Yet they didn’t try to capitalise on the revanchism which followed the Franco-Prussian War, and brought recognition to Évariste Luminais.

Laurens’ narrative techniques avoided climaxes, peripeteia, or even headlong confrontation with the story. In Pope Formosus and Stephen VI one of the two actors, being a corpse, is inanimate and incapable of facial expression and body language. In Excommunication of Robert the Pious the snuffed-out candle is the main actor.

He also opted for court-room dramas, where surely the words are the most important part of the narrative, and notoriously difficult to depict in a painting, as in The Agitator of Languedoc.

By the time that he painted what was probably his most successful narrative work, The Death of Galeswintha, his painting style was so last century (even early last century), and his intellectual puzzles had been superceded by the rush towards modernism. History painting was history, but the hundreds of students that he had taught continued painting.


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.