National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 24, 1974

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Millet's "Saint Jerome Tempted" and
"Oedipus Taken Down from the Tree":
The Discovery of a Lost Painting

by Bruce Laughton

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6 

When impecunious art students paint over old studies to save canvas, the result is seldom a brilliantly luminous surface; when a major artist cuts up a major work and paints over that, the loss is an art-historical disaster, and the new painting can present hill with some technical problems. This may be said to be the case with Jean-François Millet's Saint Jerome Tempted, a substantial part of which lies beneath his painting of Oedipus Taken Down from the Tree (figs I and 2). The National Gallery of Canada thus possesses two major paintings by Millet, one on top of the other. This is revealed by their brilliant series of X-rays taken in 1972. When the X-ray reconstruction is turned 90 degrees clockwise, the head of Saint Jerome being grasped by a young woman will be seen. The story of both pictures is the subject of this article.

Until its recent cleaning by the National Gallery, (1) the dense obscurity of some are as of the paint surface of Oedipus used to be somewhat puzzling. Its overall appearance was almost as dark as that of Daumier's masterpiece The Third Class Railway Carriage which hung near it, although when looked at closely some vigorous brushwork could be discerned beneath the varnish. Now that this has been removed, the general greenish tone has disappeared, and the very thickly impasted areas are revealed to be brilliantly coloured. The naked child, formerly yellowish, now stands out against the white cloth in subtly modulated colours, including a ruddy pink, and what appeared to be a brownish half-tone headdress on the kneeling shepherdess is now so blonde in the highlights that it may be read as long hair streaming out behind her. A considerable degree of colour variation is visible in separate strokes, although in places the paint is applied so thickly as to merit the appellation coarse. The tonal contrast between light and dark areas remains considerable, but the colour revealed in the shadows is almost Venetian in character. For example, the shepherd crouched above the great knotted 'wart' of the tree-trunk is rendered in warm reds which do not lose their colour-values by being low-toned. Particularly striking are the separate strokes of red over a green base on the shepherd's nearest hand, the nervous, pointed fingers of which are reminiscent of Tintoretto. Was this how the painting originally appeared? We shall consider some contemporary comments shortly.

The Saint Jerome which lies beneath - one might say beaten beneath - will never be seen again, except in the narrow strip on the fold-over of the cut down canvas, (2) where the flesh tones of the saint's shoulder and arm, and the woman's chest, remain visible where we would expect to find them after studying the X-ray (fig. 2). The story of this painting, which may have been equally brilliant in execution, will be considered first.

Early in 1846, when Millet was working in Paris, he received a letter from his grandmother, Mme Veuve Jumelin, the doyenne of his family at Gréville on the Normandy coast, and effectively his spiritual guardian:

A Gréville, le 10 janvier 1846.

...Tu nous dis que tu vas travailler à faire le portrait de saint Jérôme, gémissant sur les dangers où il s'était trouvé exposé dans sa jeunesse. Ah! mon cher enfant, à son exemple, fais les mêmes réflexions et en tire un saint profit. Suis l'exemple de cet homme de ton état qui disait: « ]e peins pour l'eternité ». Pour quelque raison que ce puisse être, ne te permets jamais de faire de mauvais ouvrages. Ne perds pas la présence de Dieu; avec saint Jérôme, pense incessemment entendre la trompette qui doit nous appeler au Jugement... (3)

This letter is full of personal overtones. The was then aged thirty-one. He had first wife, Pauline Ono of Cherbourg, less years previously in tragic circumstances, when were living precariously in Paris. Not many months later he had formed a liaison with another local girl in Gréville, Catherine Lemaire, whom he would eventually marry after the birth of their fourth child. This liaison created strained relationships with the rest of the family, as may be deduced by the young couple's flight to Le Havre, where they stayed for a large part of 1845. (It may be worth noting that both Millet's wives were very young women when he first met them, and that he himself had a passionate nature.) (4)

At this time Millet was painting portraits, pastoral and mythological scenes, including nudes. An exhibition in Le Havre realized enough money to go back to Paris in December, whereupon Millet set about planning a large-scale work to send to the Salon in May 1846. He was to become, before his Barbizon period, a most proficient and sensitive painter of nudes (one of the most widely known examples is the small Nue endormie now in the Louvre Museum, which has something of the tonality and colouristic qualities of Titian). Plainly his aim was to present himself to the Salon jury with an 'important' large work, already achieved modest success with two pictures of pastoral subjects in 1844. An analagous situation would be that of Thomas Couture, at one time a fellow - student of Millet's in the atelier of Delarouche, who in the following year, 1847 exhibited at the Salon his Decadence of the Romans (Louvre), a very large canvas setting with nudes which absolutely established his future career. Millet's Saint Jerome, however, was rejected, and he cut it up.

As far as possible, we would now like to reconstruct the picture. Alfred Sensier, Millet's first biographer, describes it thus:

Son Saint Jérôme cherche à se dégager des caresses féminines et crie malédiction contre les filles de Satan. Une d'elles étreint le solitaire dans l'ardeur d'un brûlant baiser. Millet, le pinceau à la main, allait quelquefois jusqu'au bout de la passion sic). Cette peinture, très juste d'effet et de mouvement, était d'une exécution superbe; Couture admirait et envoyait les artistes voirce morceau étonnant.

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