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

Bulletin 24, 1974

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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 


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 Oedipus 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: " 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 (my italics) 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 (Paris, 1973), 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 shoulder.

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 there.

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 iconographic content.

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 Drawings, cat. nos 394 and 395, plate 131.

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