"Saint Jerome Tempted" and
"Oedipus Taken Down from the Tree":
The Discovery of
a Lost Painting
by Bruce Laughton
| 4 | 5
1 I am indebted to Mr Stewart Meese of the National Gallery Conservation
Department for enabling me to examine the painting whilst in the process
of cleaning during 1974-1975, and for his helpful technical explanations.
The observations here offered on the character of the painting are, however,
my own responsibility.
The article was, in fact, begun on the basis of the evidence
of the X-ray photographs, before the picture was cleaned, and I would like
to acknowledge Dr Robert Herbert of Yale University for his generous advice
and encouragement from the beginning.
2 Mr Meese points out that the
stretcher, which measures
136 x 77-5 cm (53-9/16 x 30-1/2 in.) is not the original one. The lines
of the original fold-over indicate a stretcher of approximately 133 x 75
cm (52 x 29-1/2 in.): hence the narrow strip left visible from Saint Jerome.
3 Published in Alfred Sensier, La Vie et l'oeuvre de J. F. Millet
(Paris, 1881), p. 90 f. A free translation would be: "...you tell
me that you are working at a portrait of Saint Jerome, groaning under the
dangerous temptations to which he was exposed in his youth. Ah! my dear
child, upon his example make your own reflections, and take from them some
pious profit. Follow the example of the man
in your state
who says 'I paint for eternity' (probably a deliberate confusion of the
verbs peindre, to paint, and peiner, to suffer or labour).
For whatever reason that this (work) has to be done, never permit yourself
to paint dubious pictures, nor forget the presence of God; like Saint Jerome,
expect continually to hear the last trumpet which must call us to Judgement...."
4 An interesting psychological interpretation of Millet's personality
may be found within the pages of Lucien Lepoittevin, Jean-Francois
Millet, II - L'Ambiguité de l'Image
especially p. 176 ff. M. Lepoittevin suggests that the years 1846-1849
seem to have been particularly anxiety-ridden for Millet, with an ambivalence
between attraction and repulsion towards the physical attractions of women.
5 Sensier, op. cit., p. 90. Freely translated: "His Saint
Jerome endeavours to disengage himself from the caresses of women and calls
curses upon the daughters of Satan. One of them grasps the hermit in the
ardour of a burning kiss. Millet, brush in hand, went several times to
the extreme limit of passion (sic). This painting, very fine in effect
and movement, was superb in its execution; Couture admired it and sent
other artists to see this stunning piece."
6 Nineteenth-century biographers agree that Millet read enthusiastically
not only the Bible but also the Lives of the Saints, The Confessions
of St. Augustine, St. Francis of Sales and St. Jerome, not
to mention Bossuet, Fenelon and Virgil. The Bible he would have read in
Saint Jerome's Vulgate Latin translation.
7 My colleague, Mr David McTavish, drew my attention to the reproduction
of this painting in the article by Catherine Monbeig-Goguel, "Giorgio
Vasari et son temps," in Revue de l'Art, vol. 14 (1971 ), p. 105 ff.
8 Cf. Louis Réau, Iconographie de l'Art Chrétien, Vol. III (G-O), pp. 746-7; and
Gabriol-Leclerc, Dictionnaire d'Archéologie Chrétienne
( 1927), p. 2246. The source is
St. Jerome's Epistolary, XXII, 7.
9 See note I, para. 2.
10 In fact, Saint Jerome does not appear to be reading but contemplating
a skull. The prominent carcass in the foreground emphasizes this important
aspect of Millet's conception of the saint.
11 Sensier, op. cit., p. 90 f.
12 For permission to consult these documents I am indebted to M.
Carolus Barré, Conservateur des Archives du Louvre.
13 The X-ray reveals tension garlands in the canvas along the left
edge of Oedipus, i.e., the top edge of Saint Jerome, which
would be caused by tacks along its original stretcher. The only part of
a fold-over from the Saint Jerome
canvas revealed is along the right
edge of Oedipus, as already mentioned. Further significant evidence
is the pressure mark of a cross-bar belonging to an older stretcher - that
of Saint Jerome
- which can be seen, for example, in the region of
the Saint's cheekbone. The centre of this cross-bar is 58 centimetres
(22-7/8 in.) from what we can assume is approximately the top of the Saint Jerome
canvas. If this should be the mark of the centre cross-bar,
it should confirm that the centre of the original picture corresponds fairly
closely to my diagram, leaving very little space between the Ottawa and
the Meyer-Huber canvases. The cause of this mark, pointed out to me by
Mr Meese, is quite simply that when Millet scraped down his old
painting he pressed the canvas against the bar. Marks of violent scoring
by the palette knife can be discerned, following the form of Saint Jerome's
14 Cf. J. Soullié, J. F. Millet...Les Catalogues de Ventes 1849 à 1900
(Paris, 1900), p. 60. Soullié's entry
for Oedipe détaché de l'arbre
refers to Millet's effacing Saint Jerome
and, "sur la toile vaguement nettoyée," painting
his new picture. "Vaguely scrubbed" is not accurate. Millet scraped, as
we have seen, probably to give himself a better working surface. On balance,
it seems unlikely that he could have totally eliminated any figures originally
15 Dr Herbert confirms this, and also points out that the title of
Sensier's picture has been variously given as St. Hilarion. That
suggests that it is primarily a composition study, without having any specific
16 Cf. the dotted lines in the top left hand corner of my diagram,
showing the proportions of the sketch, and the projected diagonal there from.
17 Reproduced in The Studio (1902), Special Issue on Corot
and Millet, plate M35. There was also an oil study of Oedipus, last
known in the Young sale, Christies, 30 June- 4 July 1910, Nr. 331.
18 Reproduced in K. E. Maison, Honoré Daumier, Vol. II, Watercolours and
nos 394 and 395, plate 131.
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