Your Collection: Wisdom Defending Youth from the Arrows of Love by Charles Meynier

Charles Meynier, Wisdom Defending Youth from the Arrows of Love, 1810, oil on canvas, 242 x 206 cm. NGC

Frequent visitors to the European art collection at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) will have noticed a stunning new addition. Purchased in the summer of 2015 from a private collector, Wisdom Defending Youth from the Arrows of Love (1810) by Charles Meynier (1763–1832) is a Neoclassical masterwork from one of history’s most fascinating periods.

France was at war. Under Napoleon, who had seized power just over a decade earlier, France had conquered much of continental Europe. It was a time of considerable social and political tumult, marked by sudden reversals of fortune and enormous change. The French Revolution and the wars that followed overthrew the old order, and new men and women rose to power.

The upheaval also had a significant impact on the arts. French armies seized many of Europe’s art treasures, bringing them to Paris. In addition, Napoleon himself encouraged the creation of art celebrating the achievements of his regime, often in a style harking back to the grandeur of Classical times. Thematically and stylistically, art and architecture abounded in Classical themes, forms and motifs.

The spoils of war also brought France and her allies in conquered countries immense wealth, creating a new class of economic nobility. Seeking to cement their status as men and women of taste, the newly rich became avid patrons of jewellers, furniture makers, dressmakers, tailors — and, of course, artists.

Charles Meynier, Wisdom Defending Youth from the Arrows of Love, 1810, oil on canvas, 242 x 206 cm. NGC

One of the splashiest of these art patrons was Italian-born Giovanni Battista Sommariva (1760–1826). Having risen from virtually nothing to position of power in Italy under the French, Sommariva was not only well connected and powerful, but deeply corrupt. Later retiring to Paris with a vast fortune, he set about rehabilitating his public image through patronage of the arts.

Sommariva bought or commissioned works from almost every important artist in France and Italy at the time — including Antonio Canova, Jacques-Louis David, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon and Anne-Louis Girodet — in addition to building up a large collection of Old Masters. Sommariva regularly displayed his purchases at the Salon, the prestigious biennial exhibition held in Paris, where the works he commissioned might be hung side by side with canvases painted for Napoleon’s court. Contemporaries were amazed at his achievements, which was Sommariva’s goal.

Among the artists patronized by Sommariva was Charles Meynier, a contemporary of Antoine-Jean Gros and Jacques-Louis David. He showed considerable promise at an early age, winning a prize in 1789 in the prestigious Prix de Rome art competition. Favoured by Napoleon and his successors for his monumental works, Meynier was perhaps best known for large-scale battle scenes and ceiling paintings in public buildings such as the Louvre and the Bourse. He was also famed for designing the sculptures on the Arc de triomphe du Carrousel.

The monumental Wisdom Defending Youth shows Meynier at his best. It is a complex image, composed with great intelligence and care. A master when it came to painting the human form, Meynier has expressed his figures’ anatomy, poses and gestures with considerable skill, harnessing that same skill to tell the story concisely, clearly and convincingly. It is a work that is taut, poised and controlled, epitomizing many of the precepts of Neoclassical art. Commissioned by Sommariva, the work was exhibited by the collector at the 1810 Salon.

The inspiration for the painting comes from a classic, but now-forgotten text: François Fénelon’s 17th-century The Adventures of Telemachus, which tells story of Ulysses’ son. In a dream, young Telemachus is given a choice: Venus, goddess of love, presents him with the prospect of a life of pleasure and luxury, while Minerva, warrior-goddess of wisdom, offers a life of struggle, virtue and glory. 

Charles Meynier, Wisdom Defending Youth from the Arrows of Love, 1810, oil on canvas, 242 x 206 cm. NGC

Meynier’s title, Wisdom Defending Youth from the Arrows of Love makes the subject matter more general, applicable to Everyman (and it is definitely directed towards men). Youth is depicted at a critical moment: cupids attack him; Minerva’s shield defends him; he is tempted, but will renounce a life of pleasure. It is a difficult choice, and Youth’s desire and regret are palpable.

The work is an appeal to self-discipline and control — concepts that resonated within Napoleon’s empire, given its cult of military glory and service to the state. Sommariva’s two sons served in Napoleon’s army; one died in battle. The relevance to contemporary circumstances would not be lost on anyone.

The painting is more complex, however, than it first appears. Critics of the time were intrigued, often musing on Youth’s state of mind. Is he being prevented from falling into temptation, or had he already fallen? If Wisdom were not there, would he be able to resist? Was he faithlessly abandoning his sleeping beloved? What of the next time he was faced with a similar choice? Critics were divided, but approved of the delicate balance of emotion: the mixture of desire and regret Youth expressed, and the tension he must feel.

Meynier himself encouraged viewers to project their own emotions onto Youth, and the very uncertainty and subjectivity of their responses were fundamental to their experience of the work. Meynier also emphasized the beauty of both Youth and Love — necessary if we are to understand Youth’s state of mind, but also going beyond that. In addition, Meynier invites viewers to take pleasure in the sheer beauty of the painting itself, to say nothing of its erotic and sensual overtones, which reflected Sommariva’s own taste.

Charles Meynier, Wisdom Defending Youth from the Arrows of Love, 1810, oil on canvas, 242 x 206 cm. NGC

Sommariva was a demanding but generous patron. Although commissioning paintings on traditional subjects and grand themes, he favoured new and deeply personal interpretations. As a result, artists often injected new meaning into stories from mythology and literature when working for Sommariva — or perhaps he encouraged them to express their own interests, through his willingness to support them.

Sommariva died in Paris in 1826, at the age of 66. Meynier would go on to become a member of the Académie des Beaux-arts in 1815, and in 1819 was made a teacher at the École des Beaux-arts. He was also a champion of women in the arts, maintaining a studio class just for women, who were prevented from taking part in life drawing classes with their male counterparts. Meynier died in Paris in 1832 during a catastrophic cholera epidemic, which took 19,000 Parisian lives within six months.

Although both Meynier and Sommariva were largely forgotten following their deaths — due primarily to shifts in taste — both are now recognized as vital to the Neoclassical movement of the early 19th century. Before being purchased by the Gallery, Wisdom Defending Youth from the Arrows of Love was owned by a number of collectors — including the late ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who assembled an important collection of Neoclassical paintings at a time when such works were largely ignored.

Recently restored, the work now hangs near another important Neoclassical work, acquired by the Gallery in 2012. Commissioned by Empress Josephine and originally intended to be shown at the same 1810 Paris Salon as Wisdom Defending Youth, the unfinished Love Seduces Innocence, Pleasure Entraps, and Remorse Follows (1809) by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, is on view in the same room, finally putting the works together, more than 200 years after the fact.

Wisdom Defending Youth from the Arrows of Love by Charles Meynier is on permanent display in Gallery C209 at the National Gallery of Canada.

About the Author