Friday, 18 October 2019

The Vestal Virgins of Jean Raoux

Last year I was lucking enough to go on a visit to Lille.  

Here are my photos of two of the most striking 18th-century paintings from the  Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Jean Raoux's Vierges antiques and its pendant piece Vierges modernes.

Virgins of Ancient Times (The Vestal Virgins)
Oil on canvas, 92cm x 72.5cm. Signed and dated 1727

Virgins of Modern Times
Oil on canvas, 92cm  x 72.5cm, signed and dated 1728

Jean Raoux (1677-1734) was a fashionable painter of the Regency period. He worked largely under the patronage of  Philippe de Vendôme, the Grand Prior of the Order of Malta, in the Temple.  His pictures were "sought after for their frivolous grace and gentle eroticism". Many were virtuoso displays of painterly technique; he was renowned for his depiction of textiles, particularly, as here, satin.  Raoux was among the first to present his sitters - aristocrats, actresses and ladies of fashion - in allegorical guise. He supplied costumes and settings with a nostalgic neoclassical veneer.  He also frequently painted genre paintings of young women, alone or in small groups - as gardeners, shepherdesses etc. His 18th-century biographer, Antoine Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville, has a pretty anecdote about how he spotted a poor girl in church with her mother and prevailed on her to pose. (Abrégé de la vie des plus fameux peintres, vol.III,  Paris, 1752,  p.259-67.)

Raoux is usually credited with inventing, or at least pioneering,  the genre of the "Vestal Virgin".  In 1727-28 when these two pictures were painted, the subject was in vogue due to the appearance in 1725 of the abbé Nadal's  Histoire des Vestales.  Kathleen Nicholson notes that Raoux imagined the Vestals with archaeological correctness, six in number, in their round Temple of Vesta. The subject allowed him to depict "a society of exotic but purposeful women cloistered by their vows"; the maintenance of the perpetual fire dedicated to Vesta suggested their "ardent purity"(Nicolson, 1997)

The companion painting,  the Modern Virgins,  has been subject to various interpretations.  According to Humphrey Wine, the former curator of 17th and 18th century French paintings at the National Gallery, the two pictures are a contrasting pair which recall the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.  Whereas the Vestals are united in common purpose, their modern counterparts appear distracted or self-absorbed. The statue to the left of the Vestal painting holds an effigy of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, but  the Modern Virgins are presided over by Apollo, god of Music and the Arts (on the painted ceiling).  The elaborate architecture and ornate buffet suggest "a light-hearted commentary on contemporary debates about the extent to which luxurious living and the acquisition of luxury objects was morally justifiable. " (Wine,1992). 

Personally I am not sure that such a moralising reading is warranted -  Raoux's gloriously painted table and glittering surfaces seem, if anything, a celebration of modern  Arts.  According to Kathleen Nicholson, the second painting shows "a sorority of contemporary virgins who provide models of learning and refinement as they study, make garlands, and attend to table settings". The pairing of the images and their tone "suggests a relatively straight reading of the Vestals", who are admired for their decorum and dignity. (Nicolson, 1997)

Raoux's composition was evidently popular and he painted a number of variations on the theme.  The two prominent figures on the left of the Vestal painting appear in several different versions. Others pictures, for example one in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, depicted an individual Vesta bearing a flaming basin.  There are also Vestal portraits of named women.  One is of a little girl, Mademoiselle de Pressoy (1724), who was only eight years old.  A second, poignant, image shows Madame Boucher, née Marie-Françoise Perdrigeon (1728) a young bride who was to die at the tragically early age of seventeen.  Both these images of purity stand in contrast to later, more questionable Vestal Virgins, notably Nattier's Madame de Pompadour as Vestal.

Vestals tending the Sacred Hearth, 1730
Painting bought by Frederick the Great in 1747 for Sans-Souci

Vestal carrying the Sacred Fire, 1728-29
In the Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Portrait of Mlle de Pressoy, aged eight.
Portrait of  Marie-Françoise Perdrigeon wife of Etienne-Paul Boucher, 
 Musée des Beaux-Arts Dijon  (copy of 1733 after an original dated 1728)

Vestal Virgin in The Hermitage, St. Petersburg


 Katharine Baetjer, Masterworks from the Musée Des Beaux-arts, Lille.  No 24 and 25 "Vierges antiques" and "Vierges modernes" Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, p.130-3.

Humphrey Wine, Notice on the pictures in: Tradition & Revolution in French Art 1700-1880: paintings & drawings from Lille.  Published to accompany an exhibition at the National Gallery London, 24 March - 11 July 1993. p.165-6.

Kathleen Nicholson, "The ideology of feminine 'virtue': the vestal virgin in French eighteenth-century allegorical portraiture", in Portraiture: facing the subject, ed. Joanna Woodall (1997) p. 52-74.