In Europe, 1666 was an eventful year. The Great Plague entered its second year in London, then on Sunday 2 September the city caught fire, destroying its mediaeval heart completely, and burning until the following Thursday. In Rome, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Charles Le Brun and Gian Lorenzo Bernini founded the French Academy, which was to prove so important in the development of painting in France, and formed the basis of the most prestigious prize in painting, the Prix de Rome.
The French Academy started off in the Palazzo Capranica, moved to the Palazzo Mancini in 1737, then on to the Villa Medici in 1803, thanks to the emperor Napoleon. It enabled select French students to see and copy the works of the masters there, so developing their professional skills.
The selection process, the competition for the Prix de Rome, quickly came to dominate the latter part of the training of many French artists. Although the details of its preliminary hurdles varied over time, each year a jury considered oil paintings depicting a specified story drawn from classical mythology and history, or those in the Bible. In this article and tomorrow’s I look at some of the winners of the Prix de Rome, today between 1772 and 1805.
1772: Pierre-Charles Jombert (1748-1825), The Punishment of the Arrogant Niobe by Diana and Apollo
In telling this horrific myth of divine vengeance, Jombert puts the arrogant and irreverent mother Niobe in the centre, as might be more typical of a religious story. She’s trying to shelter one of her younger daughters from the raining arrows. Apollo and Diana, the instruments of Latona’s wrath against Niobe, are up in the clouds, Diana taking great care in her marksmanship. Around Niobe’s feet are the bodies of her sons, arrows protruding from them in witness to Apollo’s deadly skills.
This was the second year that Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) entered the Prix de Rome, and he was so shocked that his Apollo and Diana Attacking the Children of Niobe (1772) didn’t win that he went on hunger strike for a couple of days. He was eventually persuaded to resume eating and painting, failed a third time the following year, but was finally successful in winning the prize in 1774 (see below).
David’s canvas is a mass of dead bodies, sheltering daughters, horses, carnage, and death. Amid all this Niobe stands, her right hand held up to the gods, imploring them to spare her last remaining daughter. Apollo still seems busy with his bow, although Diana seems to have finished her task.
1774: Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Antiochus and Stratonica
According to Plutarch’s Lives, Antiochus was the son of King Seleucus I of Syria. When Seleucus was relatively old, he married the young and beautiful Stratonice (or Stratonica). Antiochus fell mysteriously ill, and was confined to his bed as a result. The eminent anatomist and physician Erasistratus was summoned to assess the young man, and recognised that he had fallen in love with Stratonice, his stepmother.
King Seleucus I realised that the only solution was to divorce Stratonice in 294 BCE so that she could marry Antiochus, and he made his son the King of the eastern provinces to support him in the future. Seleucus was assassinated in 281 BCE, and Antiochus then succeeded him as King of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire.
David’s painting which finally won him the Prix de Rome shows Antiochus propped up in bed, Erasistratus (in a red cloak) by him and pointing to the beautiful Stratonice at the foot of the bed. Little is shown in facial expressions, apart from Stratonice’s bashful expression with her eyes cast down. Body language and composition combine to tell the story, with Erasistratus’ pointing index finger helping to put Stratonice metaphorically and literally in the spotlight.
David was one of the greatest vindications for the competition, as he went on to lead French painting through the Neo-Classical into the start of the nineteenth century. One of his most successful pupils was JAD Ingres (see below).
1785: Victor Maximilien Potain (1759–1841), Horatius Killing his Sister
After Publius Horatius had killed the three Curiatii and secured victory for the young city of Rome over their neighbour Alba Longa, he received a hero’s welcome from all except his sister Camilla, who had been engaged to one of the Curiatii. Realising that her fiancé was dead, she was overcome with grief. Her brother proclaimed that no Roman woman should mourn the death of its enemies, and killed her on the spot.
Potain shows Publius Horatius vociferously condemning his dead sister’s actions, and at the left is a display of the clothes he removed from the Curiatii, as victor.
1789: Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824), Joseph Recognised by his Brothers
Girodet’s account of the happy resolution of Joseph’s time in Egypt, told in the Old Testament book of Genesis (chapter 45) is very busy indeed. Joseph was by this time the Vizier, and had recognised his brothers, but they didn’t recognise him until he told them who he was. Joseph stands at the right, in front of his golden throne, his arm reaching out to reunite with his family.
1797: Messrs Bouchet, Bouillon and Guérin, The Death of Cato the Younger
The Prix de Rome of 1797 was particularly important, as no award had been made over the three previous years because of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. Its jury had set the subject of the final painting as the death of Cato the Younger, a particularly grim episode which reflected times in France.
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 Battles of Pharsalus and Thapsus, and 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.
Given the appalling events of the Reign of Terror, the Prix de Rome jury might have thought this story only mildly gruesome, but it must have been Cato’s moral high ground which appealed most to them, and the challenge of referring to Cato’s reasons without letting the scene resemble a charnel house. It has also – not unsurprisingly – not been a popular theme for previous painters. Even Caravaggio had probably thought that Judith and Holofernes would get a better reception. The jury awarded three equal first prizes to Louis-André-Gabriel Bouchet, Pierre Bouillon, and Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.
Bouchet’s entry is skilfully composed, and employs a strong diagonal formed from outthrust arms bringing the gaze onto Cato’s injured abdomen.
Bouillon uses Cato’s outstretched form to make another strong diagonal, but is less directive of the gaze, and less structured altogether.
Guérin has outstretched arms leading us not to the wound, but to Cato’s head, and he in turn fending the physician away.
1798: Fulchran-Jean Harriet (1776–1805), Combat of the Horatii and the Curiatii
Harriet shows a late stage in the battle between the Horatii and the Curiatii (see Potain’s winner of 1785 above), as Publius Horatius is killing the Curiatii one by one, starting with the least-wounded of the three. One of his brothers doesn’t appear to be quite dead yet.
1801: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Achilles Receiving the Envoys of Agamemnon
Ingres’ success launched his career as one of the great history painters with this story taken from Homer’s Iliad. During a dispute over his concubine Briseis, the leading Greek warrior Achilles withdrew from the war against Troy, forcing his commander-in-chief Agamemnon to send two envoys to insist he returned. The two envoys are at the right, explaining Agamemnon’s demand to Achilles at the left, who is clutching his lyre as he rises from his seat in anger. Patroclus, Achilles’ great friend, stands behind him, wearing his helmet and a look of bemusement. Further behind, Briseis is standing in Achilles’ tent.
Ingres had been David’s pupil, and went on to define French narrative painting in the first half of the nineteenth century.
1804: Joseph Denis Odevaere (1775–1830), The Death of Phocion
Phocion was an incorruptible statesman in a Greece which had become all too corrupt. When he was wrongfully accused of treachery, he and his colleagues were sentenced to death by the mob. They were taken to prison, where they had to drink poisonous hemlock. There was sufficient to kill the colleagues, but not enough remained for Phocion, who had to pay the executioner for more.
Odevaere’s winning painting shows Phocion standing in the middle, comforting his friends as they die. At the right, the executioner is being paid for the additional supply of hemlock.
1805: Felix Boisselier (1776-1811), The Death of Demosthenes
The following year, the jury chose another grim subject, the suicide of the great Athenian statesman Demosthenes, who had incited the Athenians to seek independence from the Macedonian Empire. He escaped to a sanctuary on the island of Kalaureia (modern Poros), where he was discovered by the Macedonians. To avoid capture, he drank poison from a reed pen.
Boisselier shows Demosthenes looking up at a statue of Poseidon, clinging onto the altar as he weakens. His pen has fallen to the ground, and his left arm is outstretched towards Archias as he approaches to arrest him.