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

Annual Bulletin 6, 1982-1983 

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Paintings by Restout on Mythological and Historical Themes: Acquisition by the National Gallery of Canada of Venus Presenting Arms to Aeneas

by Pierre Rosenberg and Antoine Schnapper

Article en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  

*All works are by Jean Restout (French, 1692-1768), unless otherwise noted.

On 5 April 1717, Jean Jouvenet - uncle, sponsor, and master to Jean Restout - died. This proved a sort of liberation for the twenty-five-year-old Restout who, according to the sources we will describe later, was a modest man, rather unsure of his talent, and totally engrossed in his role as his uncle Jouvenet's assistant.

Because Restout lived too late, there is no biography of him by Dezallier d'Argenville; nor is there one in the papers of the old Royal Academy of Painting. We must therefore make do with a group of articles published shortly after Restout's death on 1 January 1768. A list of these articles, which are very close in content, was painstakingly prepared by Jean Messelet. (1) Two of them were published in the February 1768 issue of the Mercure de France, and in the April issue of the Journal des Sçavans. Two other addresses, one given by Rouxelin in May before the Caen Academy, and another by Duboullay in August before the Rouen Academy, were not published until the nineteenth century. A fifth appeared in 1769 in the Nécrologe des hommes célèbres. All seem to have a common source - none other than the artist's son, Jean-Bernard Restout, who was himself a painter.

Recognizing this underlines the importance of a sixth article. Although it first appeared in 1771, two years after the others, it was undoubtedly influenced, if not written, by J. B. Restout, who played an important role in the publication in which the article appeared, the Galerie françoise. (2) The following excerpt concerns the admission of Jean Restout into the Academy as an associate member on 29 May 1717, an event which appears to have had some connection with the painting recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada (fig. 1)*:

As reserved as he was meek, he practised in secret for the grand prize; when he felt skilled enough to enter the lists, he painted Venus Ordering Arms from Vulcan for Aeneas, and this painting gained him an associate membership in the Academy. The members saw in the painting a reincarnation of Jouvenet: it had the same style of drawing, the same large, draped forms, the same arrangement of groups, and the same harmony between perspective and all the magic of chiaroscuro.

The information provided by J. B. Restout is found in the other articles as well, although sometimes in a distorted form. Rouxelin indicated correctly in May 1768: "The work that Mr Restout submitted, not for purposes of the competition, but to find out whether the masters of the art would advise him to continue in this vein...won its author the honour of being admitted to the Academy as an associate member." (3) However, the February issue of the Mercure was more ambiguous: "He became an associate member of the Academy in the same year...on the basis of the work he submitted in competition for the grand prize and the trip to Rome," (4) as was the Nécrologe in 1769. The April 1768 issue of the Journal des Sçavans contained a strange article which showed ignorance of the customs of the Academy: "Admitted to the Academy as an associate member...on the basis of the work that he would submit in competition for the grand prize, and on the condition that he would make the trip to Rome." (5) And in August, Duboullay positively identified the competition piece and the painting for which Restout was admitted as an associate member:" And when he entered his first competition for the Academy's prize, the Company - instead of awarding him the prize - accepted him into the Academy and considered the painting to be his reception piece." (6) However, even if we assume that the word "reception" was used instead of "admission: this information is clearly incorrect. In that era, and especially in the case of the 1717 contest, the themes for the grand prize were biblical. (7) The theme of the painting submitted to the Academy in 1717 is not mentioned either in any of these articles or in the Academy's Procès-verbaux (8) contrary to what was indicated in the 1970 exhibition catalogue. (9) The only place the title appears is in the Galerie françoise, the indications of which must be taken literally: Restout had thought about entering the contest in 1717, but had not done so; the painting he submitted for his admission to the Academy as an associate member was merely a private exercise.

According to the Procès-verbaux, Restout submitted only one painting for his associate membership. This is an anomaly since most artists submitted several. (10) Either there was an error in the Procès-verbaux and two paintings were submitted, or - and this is quite possible - Restout was shown favouritism in memory of his uncle. But which painting was it? In 1970, when the National Gallery's painting was still unknown, we hesitantly suggested (11) that it might be the canvas recently shown at the Ségoura Gallery in New York (12) (fig. 2). However, the National Gallery's painting now presents another possibility, since its restoration in London has revealed the inscription (or signature) "Rêtout" on the back of the canvas along with the date "29 may 1717" - the exact date of Restout's admission to the Academy as an associate member (13) (fig.3). There are still two strong arguments in favour of the Ségoura painting, however. The first is its theme, Venus Ordering Arms from Vulcan for Aeneas, which is the theme given by the Galerie françoise. The Ottawa painting, on the other hand, represents a later event, Venus Presenting Arms to Aeneas. (14)

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