When history is fiction: painted inventions of Pierre Guérin

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Napoleon Bonaparte Pardoning the Rebels at Cairo, 23rd October 1798 (1808), oil on canvas, 365 × 500 cm, Château de Versailles, Versailles, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In the many centuries before photography, history painting was the only way that people could see the past. And just like modern photography, it became a good way of delivering fictional accounts of history.

For the aspiring French history painter in the eighteenth century, the highest praise and surest route to success came in the Prix de Rome. 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. For many, including JAD Ingres, it was formative and almost guaranteed professional success. It was also even more conservative than the École des Beaux-Arts or the Salon.

The contest for the Prix de Rome in 1797 was very important, as no award had been made over the three previous years because of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. As usual its jury set the subject of the final painting, as the death of Cato the Younger, also known as Cato of Utica, a particularly grim episode which reflected the times.

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 Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BCE and the Battle of Thapsus in 46 BCE, but 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, waking the servants.

As a result, his son, friends, and servants entered the room, and stood in horror at the sight. A physician wanted to repair his wounds, but Cato thrust him aside, and tore his abdomen open, dying immediately. This 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 I suspect it was Cato’s moral high ground that appealed most to them, and the challenge of referring to Cato’s reasons without letting the scene resemble a charnel house. Because this was the first Prix de Rome for several years, the jury awarded three equal first prizes to Louis-André-Gabriel Bouchet, Pierre Bouillon, and Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

Louis-André-Gabriel Bouchet (1759–1842), The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) (1797), oil on canvas, 114 x 144.5 cm, Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Bouchet’s entry is skilfully composed, and employs a strong diagonal formed from outthrust arms bringing the gaze onto Cato’s injured abdomen. Although a powerful moment, it lacks references to preceding or successive events, and its narrative is weak.

Pierre Bouillon (1776-1831), The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) (1797), oil on canvas, 123 × 163 cm, Musée de Tessé, Le Mans, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Bouillon uses Cato’s outstretched form to make another strong diagonal, but is less directive of the gaze, and less structured altogether. It’s hard to know exactly which moment in the story he is showing us, and the geometric diagrams in the lower right corner are confusing.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) (1797), oil on canvas, 113 x 145 cm, Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Guérin has outstretched arms leading us not to the wound, but to Cato’s head, and he in turn fending the physician away. The two figures on the left don’t appear to contribute a great deal, and the narrative is little clearer.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833) had been taught by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, and the Prix de Rome was the start of his highly successful career as a history painter and a teacher. His next challenge was success at the Salon, which he attempted in 1799.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), The Return of Marcus Sextus (1799), oil on canvas, 217 x 243 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Guérin’s The Return of Marcus Sextus (1799) had originally been intended to show the blind Belisarius returning to find his wife dead, but that had recently been painted by others. Marcus Sextus, the viewer was told, had been a victim of civil war in Rome, and was banished by Sulla. Returning from his banishment, he finds the body of his wife, and his grieving daughter, in a scene that resonated with French citizens who were then returning after the revolutionary terror had subsided.

This painting was shown, to huge acclaim, at the 1799 Salon, and Guérin was publicly crowned as a result. In 1802, JMW Turner made a drawing of it.

The only snag is that Marcus Sextus is a fictional creation of the artist. Check in Wikipedia or search online, and you’ll see that he simply never existed.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Napoleon Bonaparte Pardoning the Rebels at Cairo, 23rd October 1798 (1808), oil on canvas, 365 × 500 cm, Château de Versailles, Versailles, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1806, Napoleon commissioned Guérin to paint for the Gallery of Diana in the Tuileries Palace. The result was Napoleon Bonaparte Pardoning the Rebels at Cairo, 23rd October 1798, completed in 1808.

Napoleon had taken the French army into Egypt in 1798, and conquered Alexandria and Cairo. On 21 October, the citizens of Cairo organised an uprising, and murdered the French commander and Napoleon’s aide-de-camp. The French fought back with artillery, then the cavalry fought their way back into the city, forcing the rebels out into the desert, or into the Great Mosque. Napoleon brought his artillery to bear on the mosque, following which his troops stormed the building, killing or wounding over five thousand.

With control restored over Cairo, the leaders of the revolt were hunted down and executed. Following this, the city was taxed heavily in punishment, and put under military rule.

Guérin’s painting shows a quite different event, in which Napoleon is engaged in open discourse with the rebels. However, the presence of French cavalry behind the Egyptians, and the action taking place at the far right, suggests the truth behind the ‘pardon’.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824), The Revolt of Cairo (sketch) (1810), oil and India ink on paper mounted on canvas, 30.8 x 45.1 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

A couple of years later, Anne-Louis Girodet set the record straight. Although this is a late sketch for his finished work, The Revolt of Cairo (1810) is rather different from Guérin’s account.

There’s another of Guérin’s earlier paintings that seems a little strange too, in what should have been a straightforward account of classical myth.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Narcissus, Morpheus and Iris (1811), oil on canvas, 251 × 178 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1811, he painted an explicit erotic romance showing Narcissus, Morpheus and Iris. Iris, the Greek personification of the rainbow and messenger of the gods, sits at the upper right on a bench of clouds, her ethereal wrap forming short wings. Morpheus (from whose name is derived morphine), the god of dreams, is the smaller winged figure in the middle, looking up at Iris.

Often omitted from the title of this painting, the sleeping male is Narcissus, whose beauty was so great that he fell in love with his own reflected image. Although Iris and Narcissus both live on as flowers, there seems to be no mythological link between them. Quite how Narcissus came to appear in this painting is anyone’s guess.

In 1822, Guérin rose to become the Director of the French Academy in Rome, and didn’t return to Paris until 1828, when he was made a Baron. His health then broke down, so he returned to Rome with Horace Vernet, only to die shortly afterwards in 1833. He was buried next to Claude Lorrain, as a mark of the respect he had acquired. Among his many pupils were Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Géricault, Ary Scheffer, and Léon Cogniet, none of whom showed any tendency towards such fictional history painting.