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

Bulletin 24, 1974

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 7 here for an enlarged image

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 

The infant Oedipus cut down from the tree by shepherds (fig. I) is painted on a relatively smaller scale, but with a subtler design, which itself underwent some modifications. These can be seen by comparing it with a preliminary drawing (fig. 7). (17) There are three shepherds: one man has climbed up the tree to release the rope from which Oedipus hangs by his foot; in the foreground, a shepherdess of Michaelangelesque proportions, stripped to the waist, strains upwards to reach the baby; and another shepherd, now clearly visible in the shadows, crouches beneath the white draperies. In the drawing, the diagonal movement from bottom left to top right is beginning to be realized, through searching curvilinear strokes of the crayon. The dramatic spotlighting of the action in the centre of the group is also beginning to be indicated. The relationship of Millet's drawings with those of Daumier at this period is a separate issue (which the writer plans to expand upon elsewhere), but in this drawing the way of making an imaginary object visible through lines which create their own natural rhythms and vibrations has qualities in common with certain drawings by Daumier, such as The Thieves and the Ass (coll. Claude Roger-Marx), (18) which should not be overlooked. The donkey, or mule (which appears on the right in Millet's drawing, but not in his painting), might even belong to Daumier's vision of Sancho Pansa. (19) A common source from Baroque drawing as revivified by Delacroix might be postulated, but it is the sense of reaching for an almost sculptural grasp of form and space that gives a rapport between the work of the two artists at this epoch. (20)

In Millet's painting Oedipus, the upright format of the composition has been narrowed relative to the drawing, giving less space on the right and more emphasis to the diagonal axis implied by the line of the rope which passes through Oedipus's foot and, by weight distribution, through his body. The dramatic lighting has been intensified by impastoed highlights and deep chiaroscuro. The donkey, or mule, has disappeared, its place being taken by a ferocious-looking and somewhat grotesque black dog. If the position of this dog is compared with the position of Saint Jerome's temptress in the X-ray, his raison d'être becomes clear: he is blotting out her near shoulder and part of her face. The central area with Oedipus himself, the most thickly painted part of the picture, occupies the 'blank' area originally above the two heads in the Saint Jerome.

Since Oedipus was accepted and hung in the Salon of 1847, it does not lack contemporary descriptions. Soullié quotes several critics writing about it in that year. (21) For example, Théophile Thoré, after remarking that Millet is already known for vigorous pastels (22) continues:

L'Oedipe pose une énigme au public,...
Mais il y a dans cette fantasmagorie puissante un brosseur audacieux et un coloriste original.
And Théophile Gautier wrote:
Cela est torché avec une audace et une furie incroyables ...cette peinture qui dépasse en férocité les plus farouches esquisses du Tintoret et de Ribera....

Now that the painting has been cleaned these descriptions seem not far off the mark. Even in the darker areas some Delacroix-like rhythmic sequences of broken colour may be discerned, although the execution is uneven in quality. In the shepherd on the tree, already mentioned, there are passages of warm-over-cool layers of paint, deliberately vibrating the eye between red and green. One would be reminded of the flesh-treatment in Delacroix's St. Sulpice murals, if this picture did not pre-date them by over ten years. What seems to have astonished and alarmed the critics is the sheer thickness of the impasted areas, apparently plastered on with complete indifference to the kind of delicacy of touch that a mid-nineteenth-century connoisseur would look for. Perhaps it was precisely this 'indelicacy' that worried them: it could be associated with dangerous proletarianism. Be that as it may, a moral homily was delivered in the form of a subsequent history of the picture, published in an article by Paul Mantz (25) in Le Temps on 2 March 1875, after Millet's death. Substantially, the article is a short life of Millet and a fair study of his work in the light of the author's knowledge at that time. Dealing with the period of the mid-1840s, Mantz suggests that Millet was not yet master of his method, that is to say his paintings were executed without any particular science, and using "sophisticated" (i.e., untested) colours such as were then sold to innocent artists. He observes that some of these paintings were already (in 1875) becoming "embrouillées et obscurcies" ("confused and obscure") in their pigmentation. A significant example of this, he says, was the Oedipus, "which was certainly not a crude picture." But the subject was treated with all the fury of an exuberant romanticism. At this point, he quotes a long passage from Gautier's 1847 "Salon," beginning with the remarks already quoted above, and which continues with certain criticisms. There were some infelicities in the brushwork, Gautier wrote. Millet had piled on the impasto and abused the superimposing of layers of paint beyond the bounds of discretion. The inconvenience of this kind of plastering "maçonnerie" would become evident to the artist from then onwards.

Then Mantz recalls one of his colleagues as having said in conversation: "Les tableaux peints dans cette manière rugueuse seront dans trente ans d'indéchiffrables énigmes." (26)

This prophecy, Mantz suggests, has been realised before its time. Oedipus reappeared in 1873 at the sale of M. Faure. (27) Millet's friends were at pains to recognize the work which had formerly interested them so much. "Un secret travail de désorganisation" had been at work on the painting; the figures had sunk back into the ground, and the whole surface had become enveloped in "a greyish dirty fog."

Unfortunately this moral tale about the consequences of indiscretion has proved to be completely without scientific foundation. The "greyish dirty fog" was probably nothing more than degraded varnish, giving the effect of bloom which obscured the colours. (28) Thirty years would be enough time for this to happen, depending on the type of varnish and the manner of storage. We do not know what treatment it received at that time, but a few more decades of inadequate cleaning and over-varnishing would have been enough to darken it still further. (29) Now that several important paintings by Millet have been cleaned for his 1975 centenary exhibition, his technique as a painter is beginning to be revealed as unusually sophisticated, and his colours unexpectedly bright and clear.

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