Sunday, 12 January 2014

Philippe de Champaigne

Philippe de Champaigne seems at first thought to be one of the also-rans of 17th-century French art. He is responsible for many of the vast canvases in provincial French museums illustrating a religious subject, but not as well as Poussin might have done it, with a more solidly drawn shape to the figures, and if a landscape, not depicting it as well as Poussin or Claude would have painted it.

But there is more to him than that. A case for Mr Champaigne is made in the TLS by John Rogister (2008). There was a big exhibition devoted to Philippe de Champagne in 2007, following with there was a lavish book published by the Reseau des Musees Nationaux (2007).  Rogister's review suggests Philippe de Champaigne's work "was mainly produced for churches and convents and whose portraits were hidden away in family collections until the last century".

But then remember the amazing portrait of Cardinal Richelieu in the National Gallery - as powerful a portrait of a politician as anyone could wish, and utterly secular in effect. Rogister's view is that the artist moved progressively away from this kind of depiction of secular power to an increasingly religious, specifically Jansenist view of life. His portraits tended to be of people associated with Port-Royal, including his own daughter, who became a nun there in 1657.

Yet the portrait of Cardinal Richelieu (around 1637) seems to be the magnificent exception that doesn't ssupport Rogister's theory. De Champaigne painted French king Louis XII more than once, and all theones I have seen seem very poor by comparison with the Richelieu painting and with the later works. The Vow of Louis XIII, for example, painted in 1638, is praised by Rogister as "a superb example  of the artist's subtle rendering of flesh and drapery".

He is presumably describing the flesh of Christ, and perhaps the robes of the king, and I can accept the image as a Counter-Reformation statement of faith, but I find the figure of the King - his feeble commonplace face and expression, and his lack of classical stature, clashes with the remainder of the picture. Is this a religious statement? In which case why include the king. Is this is depiction of the French monarchy imposing a vision of a kingdom? In that case, it's a pretty feeble kingdom that is being established. It's like the intrusive donors in early Renaissance altarpieces that jar with the main religious subject. The Christ is not trivial, but the king is.

Far better, for me, are the searching later portraits, not just of priests, but of secular figures associated with Jansenism, such as the powerful expression of Omer Talon in the portrait of him (National Gallery, Washington):

For me, although admittedly not to everyone's taste, the best paintings include such austere images as the "Ex-voto" portrait of two sisters of Port-Royal (Louvre), one of whom was his daughter. It depicts a very different world from the brash exuberance and unconcerned nature of much high renaissance art: powerful by its very starkness and concentration, a very serious work of art.