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

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

Unfortunately, it is most unlikely that Sensier had ever seen the picture. He first met Millet early in 1847, by which time the Oedipus would have been under way. What Sensier did possess was an oil sketch of the Temptation of Saint Anthony (fig. 3), in which the two figures closely resemble the arrangement of those visible in the Ottawa X-ray. For the implication of a number of women tempting the saint, he is more likely relying upon the iconography of Saint Jerome as indicated in Christian literature, and in certain pictorial precedents. Indeed, as this iconography would certainly have been familiar to Millet himself, (6) the artist may have unwittingly been the source of Sensier's imaginary description of the picture, through his conversation alone.

Saint Jerome, born A.D. 347 at Stridon, studied in Rome, was baptised in 366, and made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 373. During A.D. 373-375 he was in the Syrian Desert as an Anchorite, where he wrote the Life of Saint Paul the Hermit. Paintings by Veronese (Aynhoe Park, Northants, England), Domenichino (fresco in St. Onofrio, Rome), Zurbaran (for the Hieronymites of Guadalupe, 1638), and Valdés Léal (for the Hieronymites of Santiponce, 1657, Seville Museum) create the type known as 'the temptation in the desert of Syria.' They all have in common a group of young women dancing in front of the saint who is struggling with his libido. Another early variant is a Temptation of Saint Jerome by Vasari (Graetz coll., Castello Vincigliata), where the saint is menaced by Venus with doves and cupids, one shooting arrows, while he contemplates a skull and a crucifix. (7)

The theme, so analogous to the carnal temptations of Saint Anthony Abbot (born A.D. 251), arises from an autobiographical account of Saint Jerome in which he recounts his tribulations: "(alone in the scorching desert) imagination plunged me into the riotous dancing of young Roman women." (8) The motif was ignored in the Middle Ages and only appeared in Spanish and Italian Mannerist and Baroque painting. This seems to be significant in terms of the style in which Millet himself rendered the subject, although his composition will be seen not to relate to the examples cited (whereas Sensier's description makes it sound as though it did).

The type of head with which Millet chooses to depict Saint Jerome as revealed in the X-ray (fig. 2) certainly seems to relate to a Baroque style (compare for example the head of the Saint in Guido Reni's Saint Jerome Compiling the Vulgate, now in the Vienna Picture Gallery). On the other hand, Dr Robert Herbert suggests a source in nineteenth-century treatises on expression, usually derived from antique sculpture associated with Skopas and his followers. (9) In any case the high bald forehead relates closely to Millet's sanguine drawing called Saint Jerome Reading (fig. 4), which must surely be contemporary with the painting. (10) The upper half of the naked lady revealed in the X-ray has a distinctly Venetian look. Although she is evidently grasping the saint by the scruff of the neck, her pose and the angle of her head suggests a more sophisticated caress.

The question remains, what did Millet's whole composition look like? Without the discovery of a preparatory drawing or composition study, we are left with only four pieces of evidence: (a) the oil sketch of Saint Anthony owned by Sensier, which shows only two figures; (b) the dimensions of the Ottawa canvas; (c) a surviving fragment referred to by Sensier as "the bottom part, where one finds, more or less modified, a skull and some attributes of the saint" (11): this is identifiable with the painting Still Life with a skull now owned by Mrs Meyer-Huber and reproduced here (fig. 5); and (d) the probable dimensions of the painting submitted to the Salon jury.

In the Enregistrement des Ouvrages for the Salon of 1846 Millet's entry (nr. 4255) is listed as "I (tableau) tentation, hauteur 1.50 largeur I.60.X" (rejected). (12) The dimensions given are those of the frame, apparently approaching a square shape. For an idea of how the frame could relate to the size of the canvas, we can compare the entry for the Oedipus, accepted in 1847: "hauteur 1.60 largeur 1.20." The original long dimension of the Oedipus canvas measured approximately 133.5 cm (52-9/16 in.). Therefore the frame itself would appear to be slightly under 13.5 cm wide (about 5-1/4 in.), give or take a little for overlapping (see scale diagram, fig. 6). In so far as the lateral dimension of the Saint Jerome frame accords exactly with the vertical dimensions of the Oedipus frame, and given that the right vertical edge of the Oedipus canvas is the only one cut down after the original composition was painted (13) it is thus demonstrated that Ottawa possesses the whole upper part of Saint Jerome. Roth frames must have been the same width.

We can now begin to reconstruct the possible appearance of the original composition. This has been attempted in the accompanying diagram and sketch (fig. 6). Given the position and size of the two visible heads, there would appear to be scarcely room for more than two figures, although there remains the possibility of additional temptresses adumbrated in the murk above the principal participants. (14) The balance of probability, however, seems to point to a composition very close to that of Sensier's oil sketch of Saint Anthony, notwithstanding that Saint Anthony's cowl has been removed and his personality changed into that of Saint Jerome. In the other fragment, Mrs Meyer-Huber's Still Life with a Skull, one can see in the original not only the arm but also the side of the torso of the woman. (15) Allowing for a few centimetres being taken off both canvases to allow for re-stretching, the position of the Meyer-Huber painting in the original composition may be reasonably guessed at as the lower left hand corner. This would make the woman's body correspond to the arrangement in Sensier's sketch, in which the prominent motif of the skull also occurs. The proportions of the sketch are not the same as those of the big picture, (16) and when the two are compared, it is evident that Millet changed the design somewhat to allow more space above the heads of the figures, and moved the position of the skull. What appears to be a tree-trunk in the sketch becomes papers with writing on them in the 'still life.' (Note that Sensier described this as "more or less modified" after the Saint Jerome was cut up.) The exact position of the Meyer-Huber canvas in the original composition of course cannot be proved, and the lower right hand quarter remains missing. The drawn reconstruction given here is thus a little fanciful, but it is based on proportionate measurements and attempts to show what Millet had in mind. (Readers may prefer to try drawing it themselves!)

Saint Jerome Tempted is plainly an erotic subject, whatever Sensier imagined was happening when Millet was actually "pinceau à la main." It is also compounded with conflicts. The young woman and the old saint, the artist's extramarital bliss shadowed by the formidable figure of his pious grandmother, his desire to impress, even to astound, the Salonjury, and the rejection of his labour (perhaps not worthy of eternity?): all these factors point to a disturbed and disoriented phase in Millet's career. This painting's replacement by the Oedipus in 1847 is also an interesting story.

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