Painting the Merovingians: the bicentenary of Évariste Vital Luminais 1

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), Merovingians Attacking a Wild Dog (c 1875), oil on canvas, 59 x 85.1 cm, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve come across the marvellous comics of Asterix the Gaul, you should go out of your way next week to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the little-known French artist Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), who was Asterix’s grandfather, in a way. In this article and its sequel next week I look at Luminais’ most unusual paintings in celebration of his life and work. But first let me explain how Luminais came to be an ancestor of the Asterix comics.

By the start of the nineteenth century, the early history of France was a fairly unpopular and dull subject. Those studying classics often struggled their way through Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin, but after that came a void that had no appeal, truly dark ages. They surged in popularity during the period immediately following the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, when many turned to France’s past in their efforts to recover from the disaster of defeat. It was then that Luminais painted Gauls, Franks and Merovingians from France’s more glorious past, and his paintings became some of the most popular in the Salon each year.

Luminais’ historical paintings are quite different from those of artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme in that he didn’t go out of his way to avoid anachronisms, and often became quite romantic. Indeed, because of the nature of the periods he was showing, most of his works depict events that are at best semi-legendary. They raised awareness and interest in regional legends and eras which were revisited after the Second World War, eventually leading to the creation by Goscinny and Uderzo of Asterix the Gaul in the late 1950s.

Luminais was born on 13 October 1821, into a political family in Nantes, at the mouth of the River Loire on the Atlantic coast of France. His artistic skills were recognised early, and he was sent to Paris to study when he was eighteen. Initially this was with Auguste Debay, and from there he progressed to the École des Beaux-arts under Léon Cogniet, and in the studio of Constant Troyon, a successful painter of landscapes and animals. The young Luminais met with early success at the Salon, his first two paintings being accepted in 1843 when he was only twenty-one. He was a regular exhibitor there in subsequent years, being awarded medals in five Salons between 1852-1889, and in 1869 was appointed to the Legion of Honour.

Augustins - L'Abreuvoir - Evariste-Vital Luminais - Inv Ro 163
Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), The Trough (before 1865), oil on canvas, 124 x 200 cm, Musée des Augustins de Toulouse, Toulouse, France. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

Those of his paintings which survive from his early career show him to have been particularly good at painting horses, as seen in The Trough from before 1865.

The Widow or The Fisherman's Family (oil on canvas)
Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), The Widow, or the Fisherman’s Family (1865), oil on canvas, 91 × 104.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The Widow or the Fisherman’s Family from 1865 is an example of his gentle social realism, as three young daughters assist the widow of a fisherman up some rock steps from the beach. Between the figures is a glimpse of a small fishing boat on the sands behind them.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), After the Duel (date not known), oil on canvas, 175 × 130.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

His undated After the Duel is a monochrome image of an original which is surely in full colour, and probably dates from before 1870. Luminais here shows the injured party from a duel, collapsed, his eyes closed. Listening attentively to his chest is an old man, possibly a physician. Above him are the two cloaked seconds from his team, an older man, and a beautiful woman, who is talking while she pours reviving spirits on a handkerchief. Behind and to the right is a young boy, trying to peer over the woman to see what is going on, and holding a small lidded jug on a tray.

This is an example of Luminais’ textbook use of tight composition, facial expressions, and body language. I have been unable to discover any context into which to place this event, although it could be the same farcical duel in fancy dress from the winter of 1856-7 depicted by Jean-Léon Gérôme, below.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Duel After the Ball (1857-9), oil on canvas, 39.1 x 56.3 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

In the period before the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Luminais had also painted the occasional scene from French history.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), Rout of the Germans, After the Battle of Tolbiac (c 1848), oil on canvas, 130 x 195 cm, Musée d’arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Wikimedia Commons.

One of his paintings exhibited at the Salon in 1848 shows the victory of the Franks at the Battle of Tolbiac in around 490-96, and drew praise from the critic Théophile Gautier. Although its date isn’t certain, this victory extended the power of Clovis I (who is involved in other paintings by Luminais) deep into what is now Germany.

As in most of Luminais’ history paintings, he is more attentive to legend and developing a popular iconography than to history. At the centre of this mêlée is a cart containing several near-naked young women whose role in the battle must remain somewhat elusive.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), The Gauls in sight of Rome (1870), oil on canvas, 123 x 177 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy, Nancy, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1870, he turned to even earlier French history in The Gauls in sight of Rome. Although the Gauls had been conquered by the Roman Empire from 58 BCE onwards, leading to as many as a million of their deaths, the Franks had defeated the Gallo-Romans in the Battle of Soissons in 486. This established Merovingian rule by the first kings of what equates to modern France.

Northern Italy had been inhabited by Celts from the 13th century BCE until it was conquered by the Romans in the 220s BCE, in an area known now as Cisalpine Gaul, but it had never reached anywhere close to Rome. Even at the height of the Merovingian Empire, it did not extend into the north of Italy.

Luminais’ painting showing groups of Gauls on horseback descending from the brow of a hill to the north-west of Rome towards the distant city is therefore probably fanciful. In narrative terms it is most interesting because – like Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa – it obscures its most important pictorial element, the city of Rome, and makes it as insignificant as possible without actually hiding it from view. Perhaps in this case it confirms its illusory nature.

Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne - Combat de Romains et de Gaulois - Evariste-Vital Luminais
Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), Fight of Romans and Gauls (before 1876), oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne, Carcassonne, France. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

At some time before 1876, Luminais returned to a similar location for this Fight of Romans and Gauls, in which he places the spotlight on his fine depictions of horses.

For Luminais, the Franco-Prussian War was a watershed in his history painting. His subsequent works show not only generic Franks and Gauls, but specifically refer to some as Merovingians.

In 451 CE, the last major military operation of the Western Roman Empire saw the Roman general Flavius Aetius, with the support of Visigoths and other local tribes, defeat the Huns near Châlons, in northern France between modern Paris and Metz. Among the coalition of locals claimed to have supported the Romans there are the Franks, under the legendary king Merovech, thought to have lived between about 411-458, who gave his name to a new dynasty of rulers: the Merovingians. Luminais conjured up a time when the Kingdom of the Franks encompassed much of Europe to the west of the Rhine, in the Merovingian Empire.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), Merovingians Attacking a Wild Dog (c 1875), oil on canvas, 59 x 85.1 cm, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

This romantic equestrian painting of Merovingians Attacking a Wild Dog from about 1875 appears set in a similar location to The Trough, which he had painted at least a decade earlier.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), The Death of Chram (1879), oil on canvas, 152 x 201 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Brest, Brest, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1879 Luminais went deeper into the semi-legendary details of Merovingian history in The Death of Chram, with further links to the early history and legends of the Breton people. Chram was the son of King Clothar I, a Merovingian king of the Franks who reigned between 558-561. Chram rebelled against his father more than once, and finally fled with his family to the court of Chanao, then the ruler of the Breton people.

Clothar defeated the Bretons in battle, killing Chanao and capturing Chram. Although ordered to be burned alive, Chram is shown here in 561 after he had been strangled, his sword broken, and his body placed in a cottage. With him is his wife and family, who appear terrified by the sight of distant fire. The cottage in which they were held was then set alight, killing them all. Apparently Clothar died of remorse later that year.


Wikipedia (in French).