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

Annual Bulletin 7, 1983-1984

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The Shepherd Paris of Jean-Germain Drouais

by John D. Bandiera*

Article en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7   

*John D. Bandiera is Assistant Professor, Art History Department, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Jean-Germain Drouais (1763-1788), an artist whose appeal is attributable, in equal measure, to the high quality of his oeuvre, his historical significance, and his alluring persona. (1) Drouais is all the more remarkable because, although his career was drastically truncated, he executed some monumental works and exerted a considerable influence on his contemporaries. Even before his premature death at twenty-four, Drouais was venerated by artists, amateurs, and critics, who saw him as the most promising of Jacques-Louis David's (1748-1825) students and, in his disdain for affectation and uncompromising commitment to art, an exemplar of Davidian ideals.

It is a matter of record that Drouais was David's favourite student. David is quoted by the author of the Drouais "Nécrologie" in the Journal de Paris as saying of his (recently deceased) friend and disciple, "Je pris le parti de l'accompagner autant par attachement pour mon Art que pour la personne. Je ne pouvois plus me passer de lui, je profitois moi-même à lui donner des leçons, et les questions qu'il me faisoit seront des leçons pour ma vie. J'ai perdu mon émulation." (2) This bears eloquent witness to an attachment that was both professional and paternal, and it is not surprising that when Drouais fell victim to the ravages of a "fièvre ardente" (thought to have been brought on by self-neglect and overwork) David was inconsolable. (3) Several years later he wrote in his unfinished diary, "Revenons à Drouais, le premier en date, et peut-être hélas! le premier en tout, mais la mort l'ayant atteint a l'âge de vingt-quatre ans, elle a privé la France de l'homme peut-être destiné à être cité avec Raphaël." (4) The belief that the young artist's death had deprived France of a painter with the potential to be another Raphael or Poussin was intrinsic to the Drouais mystique, and the sense of national loss was compounded by the pathetic story of the destruction of a prodigious talent about to come into full bloom.

The romantic appeal of this tragic story and David's sustained devotion do not, however, totally account for Drouais' prominence in his own time and the current art-historical interest in him. This interest is also attributable to his historical importance, his achievements as a painter, and his "fortuna critica". He was the son of the prominent portraitist, François-Hubert Drouais (1727-1775), and he studied briefly with the history painter Nicolas-Guy Brenet (1728-1792 ). But it was as student of Jacques-Louis David, whose studio he entered c. 1780, that his meteoric rise to fame began. He had his first public success in 1782 with The Return of the Prodigal Son (Church of Saint Roch, Paris) and was the de facto winner of the Grand Prix de Rome competition of 1783 with The Resurrection of the Son of the Widow of Nain (Le Mans). (5) In 1784 he won the Prix de Rome with The Canaanite Woman (Louvre) and that same year travelled to Rome with David and took up residence as a pensionnaire at the French Academy. In Rome he was David's assistant in the execution of The Oath of the Horatii (according to one source, he painted the arm of one brother and the yellow cloak of Sabina). (6) After David's departure from Rome, Drouais painted Marius at Minturnae (Louvre), shown at the annual student exhibition in August 1786. (7) In its monumental scale and powerful dramatic impact, Marius at Minturnae seemed to challenge The Oath of the Horatii while simultaneously paying homage to it. It was greeted with intense public interest and controversy (some observers felt that Drouais had surpassed his master, others that he was a slavish imitator) and it made Drouais internationally renowned. Ultimately, Marius at Minturnae became an important model of composition and expression; its influence may be seen in numerous salon paintings of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

At his death, Drouais was at work on a very ambitious project - a large painting entitled The Departure of Gaius Gracchus, known only through preparatory studies and an engraving by Piroli. (8) The only work Drouais finished after the exhibition of Marius at Minturnae was the Philoctetes (Chartres). Drouais' artistic reputation therefore rests on a handful of works that spotlight his key role in the 'severe' neoclassic current of the 1780s. It has been noted that, "Drouais' death and the fact that Peyron stopped exhibiting...removed two lights of the new school, leaving David alone as the uncontested master of French Neo-Classicism." (9) If Drouais had lived long enough to reach artistic maturity, there is little doubt that he would have as grand a reputation as any of David's students.

Drouais' small oeuvre and his career are quite well-documented, but we do not know everything there is to know about him. There are several lacunae that must be dealt with if we are to reconstruct and assess the course of his work. His influence on his contemporaries and on later generations has not been given adequate scholarly attention. Moreover, there are hundreds of drawings that have not been catalogued and published. (10) Finally, there are missing works and problems of attribution with several others. (11) The present study will deal, for the most part, with a problem of attribution and, concurrently, with widening our view of Drouais' artistic range.

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