Tomorrow is the three hundredth anniversary of the death of one of the most famous of the Coypel family of artists, Antoine (1661–1722). In this article and tomorrow’s I’ll try to give an overview of his career and an account of a small selection of his paintings.
Antoine was the son of the successful painter Noël Coypel (1628-1707), who was in turn the son of a far less successful artist. When Antoine was eleven years old, his father was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome, where the young man started to be trained by his father. Following the family’s return from Rome, Antoine progressed to the Académie Royale in Paris, the senior school in France, which was at the time being directed by a certain Noël Coypel, his father.
When he was just twenty, Antoine Coypel painted this Glory of Louis XIV after the Peace of Nijmegen (1681), which gained him admission as a full member to the Académie Royale. This treaty brought an end to the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-78, and was one of a series of treaties which France signed between August 1678 and September of the following year. These were acclaimed a great success for Louis XIV and France, which gained extensive territory in the north and east as a result. Louis was henceforth known as the Sun King.
In this elaborate allegorical flattery, the king is being crowned in the upper left, above a gathering of deities including Minerva, who is wearing her distinctive helmet and golden robes.
As a result, Coypel started to receive royal commissions, and was engaged to work on some of the king’s construction projects in his palaces at Versailles and elsewhere.
Another of his earlier paintings is this Allegory of Music from about 1684. It’s also known to be a portrait of Madame de Maintenon with the natural children of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. The latter, Françoise-Athénaïs, Marquise of Montespan, was the Sun King’s mistress between 1667-80, with whom he had seven children, five of whom are shown here. The king’s wife, Maria Theresa of Spain, didn’t die until 1683, during which he is known to have had at least eight mistresses. After his wife’s death, and possibly around the time that Coypel painted her, the king married Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, seen as the children’s governess.
The following year, in 1685, Coypel was appointed first painter to the king’s eldest brother, Philippe I, Duke of Orléans. During the 1690s he painted a series of successful religious works.
In about 1690, he painted The Baptism of Christ, a popular scene taken from the Gospels. God the Father is seen at the top of a ring of angels with the white dove of the Holy Spirit within the mandorla. Below, John the Baptist is baptising Jesus Christ using a clamshell.
Before 1697, he painted Athaliah Expelled from the Temple, which tells a relatively obscure story from the second book of Kings (chapter 11) and the second book of Chronicles (chapter 23). Queen Athaliah is the only woman monarch reported to have reigned within Israel. In the seventh year of her reign, a revolution led by Jehoiada (or Jehoash of Judah) overthrew and killed her in the temple of Jerusalem.
Jehoiada/Jehoash stands in the centre, pointing for the queen to be taken away to her death. His left hand points back to a child seated on a throne, intended to be her successor. Most of Coypel’s narrative paintings are rich with hands, which he uses extensively to indicate emotion and narrative. This may have its origins in theatre, where even exaggerated facial expressions become hard to see, so have been amplified with big gestures with arms and hands, which the audience can see more readily. This gives Coypel’s narrative paintings a theatrical appearance.
Although undated, I suspect that this painting of Esther and Ahasuerus was completed in this period. This refers to a story in the Book of Esther which is slightly better-known, and a more popular theme for paintings.
King Ahasuerus got drunk at his party to celebrate the third year of his reign, and ordered his queen to appear before him to display her beauty, but she refused so was banished. He therefore sought a new queen. Esther, a member of the Jewish community, was ordered to appear before the king and, concealing her Jewish origins, he chose her as his queen. She soon saved his life by informing him of a plot to assassinate him. Later the king let Haman, his highest advisor, plan to kill all the Jews in the kingdom, but Esther convinced the king that Haman was plotting to kill him. Haman was hanged, and the Jews spared and given the right of self-defence, as commemorated today in the festival of Purim.
From this long and complex story, Coypel shows Esther, in the centre, swooning away in the arms of the king, whose advisor is at the left. This is an apocryphal scene which was probably first painted in this form in 1546-47 by Tintoretto, and became popular in visual art during the following century.
Coypel painted the well-known story of Susanna and the elders between 1695-96, preferring to show Susanna Accused of Adultery rather than the more popular scene in which the two elders are spying on the virtuous wife as she bathes in her garden. Here Susanna has the appearance of the Madonna as she looks up to heaven, one of her children embracing her at the waist. Behind and to the right of her, an elder rests his right hand on her head to indicate the capital nature of her offence, while another looks at her aghast. Once again Coypel’s painting is rich with hands which do the telling.
From the end of the 1690s, most of Coypel’s accessible paintings switch to scenes from classical mythology, which I will look at tomorrow.