A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Classical references, Orientalist imagery, and historical depictions abound in From Homer to the Harem: The Art of Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ. In this new exhibition at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York City, a hundred works--paintings, sketches, and drawings--by the artist are presented in the first major display focusing on Lecomte du Nouÿ. Born in 1842, Lecomte du Nouÿ was a prominent figure in nineteenth-century academic art, but has been all but forgotten since his death in 1923.
Art termed "academic" is rooted in the instruction of the Academy, the traditional training ground for artists in the nineteenth century with its focus on the human form. Young artists studied the human figure by continuous drawing and sculpting and attempted to adhere to a rule-based artistic style of well-developed skill and formal composition. Nineteenth-century Impressionist painters largely overshadow contemporaneous academic painters today, and the Dahesh Museum seeks to further public interest in the academic tradition.
Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ kept strictly to this tradition. He believed that art should have an edifying quality and painted accordingly. The Dahesh exhibition displays representations from all of Lecomte du Nouÿ's main themes, including portraiture, travel, history, the neo-Greek tradition, religion, and the Orient.
The exhibition opens with a self-portrait, one of a few that he did during his career, juxtaposed with his photograph so that viewers can compare the two. A large painting entitled Paolo and Francesca , which marked Lecomte du Nouÿ's 1863 debut at the Paris Salon, is also displayed near the front of the exhibition. Inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy, it focuses on the two large, nearly bare figures of the lovers Paolo and Francesca and evokes memories of the human form in Renaissance art. Nearby, viewers can see evidence of both Lecomte du Nouÿ's education and his influence on later art students at the Academy. For instance, three lithographs on display were copied from his drawings and used for a design course at the École des Beaux-Arts. The drawings were chosen for the course by Lecomte du Nouÿ's last and most influential teacher, Jean-Léon Gérôme, who began the school in 1864. It was Gérôme who inspired the travels that would be invaluable to the composition of Lecomte du Nouÿ's later works. Gérôme also taught Lecomte du Nouÿ to pursue the depiction of la belle nature (the most pure of natural forms) which the artist sought to do for most of his career. The other work in this room showing the influence of Lecomte du Nouÿ's education is a painting from the studio of art teacher Charles Gleyre. The painting shows rows of his students, including one that may be Lecomte du Nouÿ. Interestingly, Gleyre's students at the time included the Impressionists who now eclipse the academic artists.
The exhibition progresses to Lecomte du Nouÿ's travel paintings. A number of oil sketches hang that were done during his journeys through Egypt and Venice, one of his favorite cities. These sketches were purely for himself and not for public consumption, since landscapes alone played an inferior role in academic art. Of note is a depiction of a scene in Paris completed during a particularly cold winter, so cold that Lecomte du Nouÿ wrote the temperature, below zero, on the back of the work.
The major historical paintings on display include Supper at Beaucaire, 1869. Painted in 1894, the work suggests Rembrandt, from its gloomy appearance and mere candlelight glow, and shows a young Napoleon Bonaparte conversing over dinner. Dying for the Fatherland, finished in 1892, represents the historical reality-bending that Lecomte du Nouÿ: enjoyed: the placement of one time period upon another. A stark, awkwardly placed naked male soldier, referencing an ancient sculpted Greek figure, lies on a nineteenth-century French battleground. When first exhibited, the painting included soldiers with uniforms similar to those worn during the Franco-Prussian War. Art viewers at the time criticized the work for showing a dead soldier during what they thought was a specific moment and even a specific battle. Lecomte du Nouÿ responded that the dead figure was intended as a memorial for all who had ever died for the country of France, and he even painted out the soldiers to prove his point.
The néo-grec (New Greek) movement was pioneered by two of Lecomte du Nouÿ's teachers, Charles Gleyre and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Thus, it is no wonder that their pupil followed in the tradition. His painting The Invocation of Neptune (1866) is an embodiment of the movement: classical subjects with a newfound personal touch. This particular painting, depicting a family's sacrifice to the god Neptune, focused on ordinary human beings in the ancient world rather than simply the gods as did older classisistic art. Eros (1873), stands center stage on one wall and shows the god of love emanating light and bright color to two happy winged cupids. Commentary on this painting by the exhibition's curator, Roger Diederen, is particularly interesting; he suggests that this work may have been done in response to a similar painting by Edouard Toudouze, who had been awarded the coveted prix de Rome from the Academy the year before. Toudouze beat out Lecomte du Nouÿ for the prize and painted his version while studying at Rome. Perhaps Lecomte du Nouÿ decided that he could produce a better version of Toudouze's painting out of spite. Other interesting works of the néo-grec period include The Charmer (1870), which references the ancient world by means of a double flute and animal skin.
After Lecomte du Nouÿ's travels through the Middle East, he used biblical and religious subjects in his works. Because of the biblical archaeology at the time, combined with the notion that people in the Middle East were direct descendants of the people who lived when the Bible was written, Lecomte du Nouÿ and his contemporaries eagerly dove into such themes. In this exhibition viewers see that Lecomte du Nouÿ often integrated Orientalism into his religious works. Artistically, Orientalism can be loosely defined as the use of Near and Middle Eastern lands, people, customs, and lifestyle in art. Lecomte du Nouy depicted people of all religions, from Christians that he saw in the Middle East to the Jews that he observed in Morocco, as in Rabbis Commenting the Bible on the Saturday (Souvenir of Morocco), painted in 1882. Jews and Christians were often portrayed at the time because Muslims often objected to being painted. Detail in these religious paintings is faultlessly accurate, right down to correct Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions.
More Orientalist paintings are exhibited at the Dahesh. Of them many are Egyptian, such as The Gate of the Harem, Souvenir of Cairo (1876). In The White Slave (1888) Lecomte du Nouÿ captures the remnants of the white slave trade that was conducted in the Ottoman Empire. Since white slaves served as courtesans in the harem, he painted a seductive woman in pure luxury, from the food beside her to the leisurely way she enjoys a puff of smoke. Also of note in this painting are the many kinds of objects that are from different areas of the world. Clearly Lecomte du Nouÿ drew on his travel experiences and incorporated them into the painted décor of this work. The Dream of a Eunuch (1874) shows that Lecomte du Nouÿ also made use of other sources; for this work, Montesquieu's Persian Letters served as his muse. Montesquieu composed these letters in 1721 as a commentary on French culture and politics in the form of letters written by Persian travelers in Paris.
A major strength of this exhibit is the fact that the artist's lost works are by no means forgotten. The curator has found reproductions of what has been lost in order to inform viewers of Lecomte du Nouÿ's other famous works. His most acclaimed work, entitled The Bearer of Bad Tidings, was completed in 1872 and is now lost. While the small black-and-white photograph certainly does not do it justice, the representation allows us to imagine the grandeur of the work and get a sense of why it was so popular. The curator also does an excellent job of posting interesting and relevant information about the paintings, going so far as to put up miniature examples of other artists' work for comparison's sake in some cases. The exhibit is open to the public from now until September 19, 2004. With its focus on such a little-know, but doubtless extremely talented artist, From Homer to the Harem: The Art of Lecomte du Nouÿ: will certainly make for an enjoyable afternoon at the Dahesh.
Diana Michelle Fox, a classics major at the University of Chicago, is an intern with ARCHAEOLOGY.