During the eighteenth century, the Prix de Rome had been awarded to a few who went on to become painters of great distinction – David and his pupil Ingres are perhaps the best examples, but most winners have since vanished into obscurity. The subjects chosen by its juries had become increasingly obscure moments in classical history and legend, and the competition was in danger of becoming so esoteric that it no longer mattered.
The revolution in painting brought by the Impressionists targeted the Salon, the annual state-run and heavily-juried exhibition. As the bastion of conservatism and often hackneyed taste, Manet, Monet, and others riled against it, although in their day most of them enjoyed some success – or at least notoriety – there. They seemed less concerned with two other organs of the French art establishment: the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and its highest prize for aspiring painters, the Prix de Rome.
By this time, the Prix de Rome had separate categories for architecture, sculture, engraving, and even musical composition. As the most coveted award for a young painter, it had been established in 1663, and its reward was a bursary of 3-5 years at the French Academy in Rome, now in the Villa Medici thanks to Napoleon. For many, including Ingres, it was formative and almost guaranteed professional success. It was also even more conservative than the École des Beaux-Arts or the Salon.
1817: Léon Cogniet (1794–1880), Helen Delivered by Castor and Pollux
Castor and Pollux, together known as the Dioskuri, were mythical twin brothers, whose mother was Leda. Castor was the mortal son of the King of Sparta, while Pollux was the divine son of Zeus, conceived following his seduction of Leda, when he assumed the form of a swan (depicted extensively in paintings of Leda and the Swan). Also resulting from Zeus’ seduction of Leda (through obscure biological mechanisms) was Castor and Pollux’s sister Helen of Sparta, then Helen of Troy.
When Helen was abducted by Theseus, Castor and Pollux invaded his kingdom of Attica and rescued Helen from him. To avenge that abduction, they took Theseus’s mother, Aethra, who was made a slave to Helen back in Sparta, until she was released after the fall of Troy.
Cogniet painted this story in plain terms. Castor and Pollux are shown either side of Helen, celebrating their success.
1832: Hippolyte Flandrin (1809–1864), Theseus Recognized by his Father
Theseus was a great mythical hero, and founder of the city of Athens. In some myths, his father was an early king of Athens, Aegeus, who abandoned Theseus’ mother Aethra. When the hero came of age, he left his mother and travelled to Athens in quest of his father, to claim his birthright. After he had tackled six labours, Theseus met his father, but didn’t reveal his identity. His father’s lover the sorceress Medea immediately recognised Theseus and tried to have him killed during a quest for the Marathonian Bull.
When Theseus succeeded, survived the process, and returned to Aegeus in Athens, Medea tried to poison him with a cup of wine. Just as he was about to put the wine to his lips, Theseus was recognised by his father, who knocked the cup away, saving his son’s life.
Flandrin’s painting has a decidedly neoclassical look which appears to have been influenced by Jacques-Louis David.
The Acropolis in the background establishes this as Athens. The moment shown is immediately after Aegeus has recognised his son, and the cup of aconite lies spilt on the table. Theseus, conspicuously naked, stands in the middle of the canvas, his father’s sword held rather limply in his right hand. Aegeus stands to the left of centre, talking to his son quite emotionally. Of all the characters shown here, it’s Medea who is the most fascinating: stood at the far left, she appears to be on her way out. She is po-faced, and looks as if she has come not from Greece, but from central Asia, perhaps.
1850: Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry (1828–1886), Zenobia Found by the Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes River
Perhaps in celebration of the middle of the century, the jury of the Prix de Rome in 1850 chose one of its most obscure subjects, a queen of Armenia who had been described by the Roman historian Tacitus, Zenobia. Somehow this story had come to be popular in the arts, as the theme for many paintings and operas.
After her entire family had been executed, in 53 CE she and her husband the King of Armenia were driven to flee back to Iberia, while she was pregnant. During their flight, Zenobia asked for an honourable death rather than falling captive to their pursuers. The king drew his scimitar, stabbed her, and threw her body in the River Araxes to be certain of her death. He then continued his flight, but she was rescued by shepherds, healed, and taken to live in the royal court of King Tiridates of Armenia.
Baudry’s painting shows a curious assortment of shepherds tending to the unconscious Zenobia. A small wound, with a trickle of blood, is under her bared right breast. Above her is an unusual profusion of arms pointing in different directions.
1856: Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891), title not known
Delaunay first competed for the Prix de Rome in 1852, but was unsuccessful. He tried again over successive years, but it wasn’t until 1856 that he was awarded the prize jointly with Félix Auguste Clément. Sadly, I’ve been unable to trace the title or image of that winning painting, but show his unsuccessful entry from the previous year, which has become better-known.
Caesar and His Fortune, also known as Caesar in the Boat shows an episode from the civil war fought between Julius Caesar and Pompey in 49 BCE. When Caesar had famously crossed the Rubicon and driven Pompey from Italy, he then tried to cross the straits of Brindisi in disguise as a slave, in his pursuit of Pompey, who had fled to Greece. However, Caesar’s boat was caught in a storm, and forced to turn back, as shown here.
Caesar stands, looking quite unlike a slave, in the small boat, as its oarsmen struggle to make headway in the mounting sea. He then made the famous remark, quoted by Plutarch (Lives, volume 2): Fear not, you are carrying Caesar and his fortune.
1861: Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1834–1912), The Death of Priam
Lefebvre, best-known for his later female nudes, painted this episode from the fall of Troy. A thoroughly conventional, and very Spartan, Neoptolemus is just about to swing his sword at the prostrate figure of King Priam, who is lying on the floor by the altar to Zeus. Priam looks up at his killer, knowing that he has only seconds to live. Behind Neoptolemus is another body, presumably that of Priam’s son Polites. To the right, in the darkness behind, Queen Hecuba tries to comfort other Trojans. At the left, a young Trojan is trying to sneak away, back into the burning city, with smoke twisting its way into the dark sky.
1866: Henri Regnault (1843–1871), Thetis Bringing Achilles the Weapons Forged by Vulcan
Regnault, son of one of France’s most distinguished chemists and physicists, won the Prix de Rome at his second attempt, with this painting. This title was taken from a famous work by Anthony van Dyck, generally known as Thetis Receiving the Weapons of Achilles from Hephaestus (1630-32).
It shows a scene from the story of the Shield of Achilles, drawn from Homer’s Iliad, book 18, lines 478-608. In this, the sea-nymph Thetis, Achilles’ mother, pleads with Vulcan for replacement weapons for Achilles in the Trojan war, after his original armour and weapons were taken by the Trojans from the corpse of Patroclus. Here, the bare-breasted Thetis brings those impregnable weapons to Achilles, among which is the famous decorated Shield of Achilles.
1868: Edouard-Théophile Blanchard (1844-1879), The Death of Astyanax
Subjects from the fall of Troy remained favourites with the jury. Blanchard’s account of the slaughter of the infant son of the wife of Hector by Neoptolemus. It’s notable for the unconventional depiction of Neoptolemus as a North African. According to myth, Neoptolemus’ father Achilles was the king of Thessaly, in central Greece.
Andromache, Hector’s widow, pleads on her knees with the warrior to spare her son, her left hand vainly trying to prevent him from being slung from the wall. Two men cower in fear in the background. Two of Troy’s famous towers are shown, but there is no smoke or other evidence of a sacking in progress, neither is there any sign of King Priam himself.
1869: Luc-Olivier Merson (1846–1920), The Soldier of Marathon
Merson’s winning entry shows a much better-known classical story. Pheidippides (or Philippides), seen collapsed on the ground, is the legendary soldier who was said to have run from the scene of the Battle of Marathon to Athens in 490 BCE, to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Persians. Almost certainly a more modern romantic invention, this forms the basis of the modern marathon. This became a significant part of the growing Olympic movement, which culminated in the running of the first modern marathon in the renewed Olympic games of 1896.
Merson went on to become a brilliant narrative painter, and a Naturalist, although he has largely been forgotten now.
1870: Fernand Lematte (1850–1929), The Death of Messalina
Messalina was one of the more colourful characters used by a jury to the Prix de Rome. The third wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, she was claimed to have been notoriously promiscuous, although that may have been a deliberate slur. In 48 CE, she was implicated in a plot to overthrow her husband. Narcissus, one of Claudius’ court, prevented her from gaining access to her husband in the palace.
When Claudius asked to see her, Narcissus ordered an officer of the Praetorian Guard to execute Messalina. She, though, had taken refuge with her mother, Domitia Lepida Minor, and was offered the chance of taking her own life instead. When she proved unable of cutting her own throat, one of the Guard ran her through with his sword. Claudius showed no reaction when he was informed of her death, and the Senate required that her name was removed from all public and private places.
Lematte’s painting shows Messalina’s mother pushing Claudius away from her daughter, who is clutching a small dagger in her left hand. Behind the emperor are members of the Praetorian Guard ready to execute Messalina. The artist’s skilful use of lighting and his sketchy background are notable.
1879: Alfred-Henri Bramtot (1852-1894), The Death of Demosthenes
When the jury again chose the suicide of Demosthenes (shown in the previous article) as the subject, Bramtot’s successful painting shows Demosthenes’ limp body being supported from falling in front of the altar, with Archias angry and frustrated at the far right. The altar tripod is at the left edge, and the orator’s pen and writing materials are behind it.
1887: Henri-Camille Danger (1857–1937), Themistocles Drinking Poison
The jury of 1887 chose another previous subject, the suicide of Themistocles. Danger recreates the moment of great drama as Themistocles, visibly aged, raises a goblet ready to drink to his death.
By this time, the Prix de Rome was in terminal decline, at least as far as painting was concerned. Indeed, by the early twentieth century it was deemed irrelevant to both painting and the training of artists. Having survived two World Wars, it was finally terminated in 1968 as a result of student unrest and other riots of that May, three hundred and two years after it had started. The French Academy still operates in the Villa Medici, though.