Sunday, 23 September 2018

Danloux - Skating on thin ice

Could it be that the Skating Minister, that most iconic of Scottish paintings, is not by Henry Raeburn but by the French émigré artist Henri-Pierre Danloux?  This proposal caused furore in the art world when it was first put forward in 2005 and the question is still very much unresolved.  Like a lot of these historical debates, the controversy is less interesting in itself, than for the various academic and political manoeuvres it has occasioned. Scottish pride and the credibility of a hundredweight of merchandise ride on the outcome - this is, after all, was the image which in 2005 the new Scottish Parliament had chosen to put on its Christmas cards!

Reverend Robert Walker (1755 - 1808) skating on Duddingston Loch 
oil on canvas, 76.2 cm  x 63.5 cm, Scottish National Gallery
The originator of the dispute was Dr Stephen Lloyd, since 2012 Curator of the Derby Collection at Knowsley Hall in Merseyside but until 2009 a Senior Curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  In a paper published in the Burlington Magazine in July 2005 Dr Lloyd noted that there had always been doubts concerning the attribution of the Skating Minister..  A catalogue to the National Galleries collections produced in the 1970s states, for instance, that "the "type of canvas, style of painting and scale of figure have no parallel in Raeburn's work";  the 1983 illustrated guide questioned the provenance: "there are difficulties in accepting the family tradition that it was painted by Raeburn, whose style was quite unlike this" (p. 474-5).  For Lloyd and other critics a major  Raeburn exhibition held in Edinburgh and London in 1997 threw into sharp relief how unusual the painting was among Raeburn's works in terms of paint-handling and composition.  A portrait of Admiral Duncan in the National Portait Gallery encouraged Dr Lloyd to consider Danloux as the possible painter.


Merchandise at stake - the Scottish National Gallery shop in 2004
The Scottish Parliament building: the windows of the Members' office accommodation
are widely thought to echo the silhouette of the Skating Minister.
 

Although Stephen Lloyd's revisions have been widely accepted , he has a knowledgable and well- respected opponent in David Thomson, retired Director of the National Portrait Gallery and the foremost expert on Raeburn.  The chief organiser of the 1997 exhibition, in 2004 Dr Thomson co-authored a popular study of the Skating Minister for the Galleries.  He has been seconded by a younger specialist  Dr David Mackie, who is currently preparing a catalogue raisonnée of Raeburn's work. Thomson's views were widely canvassed in the Scottish press and in July 2006 he replied to Lloyd in the Burlington Magazine.



Provenance of the picture

There  is no reason to doubt the traditional identification of the skater as the Reverend Robert Walker (1755-1808), minister of the Canongate Kirk and member of the Edinburgh Skating Society, which met regularly to skate on the frozen lochs of Duddingston or Lochend.  However, there is no record at all of the painting itself before 1902. In 1914 it was offered for sale at Christie's by Beatrix Scott, Dr Walker's great-granddaughter,but failed to make the reserve of £1,000.  The art historian James Grieg noted in his papers at the time that it was "not a Raeburn".  In 1949 it was auctioned by Christie's in a sale of "Sporting pictures and paintings" and acquired for the National Galleries for the comparatively modest sum of £525. The then Director of the Galleries Sir Ellis Waterhouse was confident the painting was by Raeburn and professed himself well-pleased. In Dr Lloyds' view, however, the low price realised suggests that other buyers remained doubtful.

The vendor in 1949 was a Miss Lucy Hume from Bournemouth who had purchased the painting from Beatrix Scott in 1926 for £700. A letter from her lawyer contains a typed memo from Beatrix Scott, which provides the crucial statement of provenance:
The portrait was painted by Raeburn in 1784.  I have always understood that Raeburn considered it his masterpiece, the pose being so good and the lovely frosty atmosphere of the sky and the ice with all the marks of the skates. Dr Walker was a great skater.  On his death, Sir Henry Raeburn gave the picture to his widow, my great-grandmother. After her death, it came to my mother.

The tradition that Walker and Raeburn were friends is confirmed by the minister's will drawn up in 1798 in which Raeburn is named as one of nine trustees appointed to look after his estate. There is no mention of the painting in the list of items bequeathed to his son John. 

Clearly the dispute turns to a large extent on the weight given to Miss Scott's testimony.  Dr Lloyd is sceptical:  
It's a piece of evidence that one has to handle very, very carefully. To me, this description is very over-specific. There are statements about it being given by Raeburn to Walker's widow; there's all the business of the 'hissing' ice. It's a rather too elaborate description for an 80-year old woman. To me, it sounds like a sales pitch. [quoted in The Herald, 20 Aug 2006]


If not Raeburn, then who else?   There were various other Scottish portraitists working in Edinburgh at this time - David Allan, Alexander Nasmyth, Archibald Skirving. According to Dr Lloyd only the latter was sufficiently accomplished to have created the Skating Minister, but is excluded because he worked almost exclusively in pastels.  Unfortunately, there is no documentation at all to connect the work with Danloux either - though the dates are possible.  Danloux emigrated to London in 1792 and settled among the French colony in Soho where he set himself up successfully as a portrait painter.  He is known to have travelled to Edinburgh in 1796, 1797 and 1798  where he painted the comte d'Artois and his family, in comfortable exile in Holyroodhouse,  as well as various society portraits, such as that of Admiral Duncan.


Danloux kept a detailed journal of the comings and goings of the émigré community and his English clients.  This is published, but not accessible on the internet - It does not mention Walker, but  it would be nice to get a feel of how inclusive his record really was.  There is also a bit of an unanswered question about the dating of the portrait. Most art historians, including David Thomson,  favour a date in the mid-1790s, which would be coincide with Danloux's presence in Edinburgh.  1784, the date given by Beatrix Scott,  is too early even for Raeburn, who only returned to Scotland from Rome in 1786. Walker was active in the Skating Society for a long period, from 1780 into the 1800s, so that is no real help.  He was born in 1755, so in the mid-1790s he would have been forty, which looks about the age of the man the portrait.  Walker is in his clerical attire, but a costume historian could also surely date that stock and hat; to me, the dress certainly looks consistent with the 1790s.




Style and composition

With so little documentation, argument inevitably centres on the work itself.  There are various technical considerations which cast doubt on the attribution to Raeburn: 

  • The picture is unusually small for a Raeburn (76.2 cm x 63.50 cm).  Dr Lloyd describes it as a '"cabinet" composition'.
  • It uses a traditional type of canvas whereas Raeburn preferred canvas with a herringbone weave
  • The surface has developed an irregular craquelure which is not found in Raeburn's other oils.
  • In the painting was subjected to x-ray analysis. The results, published for the first time in 2013, showed an absence of the lead-white underpaint which Raeburn generally used in the flesh of his sitters:.
"The x-rays show that the lead-white paint which Raeburn commonly used to 'underpaint' his works shows up in the ice, landscape and sky of the painting but nowhere in the face.  This is utterly alien to the typically rough and expressive application of this key pigment in the underpainting of the faces in Raeburn's portraits"  [Lloyd, quoted in The Scotsman, 20 Jan 2013]

The style and brushwork are also atypical.  Dr Lloyd notes that Raeburn's painting after 1786,  is  characterised by dramatic lighting effects, deep shadows, rich colour and a loose handling of paint.  The Skating Minister in contrast is carefully drawn, the palette muted and there is a virtual absence of shadow. 

More telling still is the composition itself.  Raeburn virtually never depicted figures in motion in this way.  The graceful skater is skilfully captured in perfect balance, with one leg behind his body.  On the other hand, there are several parallels in Danloux's work.  Indeed, Dr Lloyd's attention was first drawn to Danloux by the pose of the officer in the background of  Danloux's portrait of Admiral Duncan, painted in 1798,  in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  

He has subsequently identified a number of other parallels.  This, for example is Danloux's portrait of the famous émigré courtesan Rosalie Duthé, painted in 1792.




Here is one of two cabinet size portraits of officers in the Dumfriesshire militia painted by for Charles, Earl of Dalkeith during Danloux's time in Scotland: 

Sergeant Stevenson of the Dumfriesshire militia 
99.1cm  x73.6 cm

Dr Lloyd's opponents have produced various counter-arguments: 
  • The technical objections are not decisive. Although the small scale is unusual, it is not unparalleled in Raeburn's works - the painting was after all an intimate gift to a friend rather than a formal commission.  Raeburn also occasionally used canvas without the herringbone twill.  The absence of white lead underpainting was more of a problem. Duncan Thomson emphasised that Raeburn  may have been open to new techniques: “I’m not sure how significant it is,” he said. “It’s like horse meat in beefburgers. It doesn’t change the look and it doesn’t change the taste.”  [Let's hope McDonalds doesn't take that line....]
  • Some aspects of the painting are highly characteristic of Raeburn:  the repainted angle of Walker's hat, the presence of lines scored with the wrong end of the brush;  the scuffed pink paint used for the cheeks.  The way the coat shines through the white material of his cravat is "absolutely typical Raeburn".
  • The novelty of the pose is an argument for rather than against it being by Raeburn. Raeburn was open to different influences and experimented with different compositions during his time in Scotland, especially in the mid 1790s.  One suggested parallel is The Skater by Rhode Island artist Gilbert Stuart, painted in Westminister in 1782, though there is no direct evidence that Raeburn knew this work. [seeThe Scotsman, 5 June 2005]


Where does this leave us?

With the experts so at odds, this is a difficult one.  At the National Galleries in Edinburgh opposition to the reattribution seems to have hardened.  The current exhibition Remaking of Scotland: Nation, Migration, Globalisation 1760-1860 at the newly rennovated National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh features Danloux's portrait of Admiral Duncan.  According to a review:  "Although the iconic “Rev. Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch” was once attributed by Stephen Lloyd, former curator at the SNPG, to the talented portrait-painter, the official line at the Galleries is now that this is undoubtedly the work of Raeburn. "[BooksandIdeas.net, 13 Sept 2018]

On the other hand, the balance of scholarship is with Dr Lloyd.  In 2012 he edited a collection of essays on Raeburn with Viccy Coltman, professor of 18th-century History of Art University of Edinburgh.  In this he published his x-ray findings for the first time, prompting a new, more favourable, round of articles in the press.  In 2012 he also publicised his views in an article on Raeburn for the ArtUk website.

Lloyd's supporters include Sir Timothy Clifford,  Director of the Scottish Galleries until 2006, and  Alistair Laing, the former Curator of Pictures and Sculpture at the  National Trust.  Laing had been struck for a long time by the likeness of the Skating Minister to Danloux's portrait of Rosalie Duthé:

Certainly, people had treated the picture for some time with doubt, but I had never seen anyone's name associated with it, " he told the Sunday Herald. 
It was a Raeburn exhibition in Edinburgh and London in 1997-98 that sparked Laing's doubts. "It was only when I went to the Raeburn exhibition in 1997 that Danloux occurred to me, and I did say it to some people but never did anything about it. It was just a hunch, backed up by my knowledge of the two artists.'' The active figure reminded Laing of a painting by Danloux of Mademoiselle Rosalie Duthe hanging a painting: "He was good at showing a graphic, active figure performing, which is unusual in British and French painting of the era. 

"With the skater, you really feel the motion, and Mlle Duthe showed Danloux had that kind of imagination not to portray a classical position, or the accepted norms of genteel behaviour. It is the scale of a number of his works and he was in Edinburgh at the right time to have painted the picture." [quoted in The Herald, 17 April 2005]


Particularly telling is the agreement of experts on 18th-century French painting, such as Colin Bailey at the Frith Collection and above all Olivier Meslay, the Louvre's specialist on British paintings and the foremost authority on Danloux, who, it would seem, had kept quiet for diplomatic reasons:

"It would be tricky that it is a Frenchman who is about to say - in front of Scots - that this is not by Raeburn, by your Scottish artist, but by a Frenchman, " he told the Sunday Herald yesterday. 

Meslay's political sensitivity got the better of him. "I found it embarrassing - it would be like a Scot coming to say that the most beautiful painting by David [the French neoclassical painter and revolutionary] in the Louvre was by Raeburn.  [The Herald, art. cit]  

In his 2012 book, Dr Lloyd even claimed the endorsement of Pierre Rosenberg himself, whom he met at a conference; the doyen of French art history was said to have commented, "that the Danloux attribution was absolutely right and that the picture could never have been painted by Raeburn".  [see The Scotsman,  20 Jan 2013.]



The lack of documentary evidence is, however,  still a major stumbling block.

In January 2013 the Times reported that Dr Lloyd had appealed to owners of Scottish private collections for help to trace a new Raeburn portrait of the Revd Walker.  Raeburn is known to have painted at least twenty portraits of clergymen, including one of the Revd Walter Buchanan now in a private collection.  The portrait Dr Lloyd wants is a similar conventional image,  "a formal head-and-shoulders image of Walker in clerical uniform with black robes, white collar and powdered hair".  The article states only that there is "evidence that such  a portrait of Walker was auctioned" but it is not clear what this evidence is or how it relates to the provenance of the Skating Minister. [Times, 21 Jan 2013]


Personally, I think it is worth standing back for a moment and asking what it is which makes this little picture so appealing and so suited as a modern Scottish national symbol?  It is surely the Reverend's pose, private and purposeful but at the same time slightly playful, gliding over the ice with an unself-conscious kick of the back leg.  It is a perfect image of a man of the late Enlightenment - and so very.....well, Danloux.



Readings

This small picture, showing a figure in action, is quite unlike other known portraits by Raeburn.
Notice for The Skating Minister on the National Galleries of Scotland website:
https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/5327/reverend-robert-walker-1755-1808-skating-duddingston-loch

 It was in the mid-1790s that his inventiveness, which might have had a freer rein in a different climate, led him to paint the unique little full length of his skating friend, the Revd Robert Walker, better known as The Skating Minister (NG Scot.). Its combination of poise, precision, and humour have made it by far Raeburn's most famous painting; indeed, by a quirk of taste, since its virtual rediscovery in 1949 it has gained a degree of popularity unique in British art.
David Thomson, Dictionary of National Biography online - Entry for Raeburn by David Thomson, last revised 2008
https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/23007

The most famous painting associated with Raeburn, depicting Reverend Dr Robert Walker (1755–1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch, also known as ‘The Skating Minister’ a damaged and restored work acquired cheaply at auction in 1949 by the Scottish National Gallery, has long had its attribution doubted by many observers on account of its unusual small-scale format and the artificially balletic posture of the silhouetted figure gliding over the frozen loch. I have argued elsewhere (The Burlington Magazine, July 2005) that a more likely painter of this sporting portrait is the versatile French émigré artist, Henri-Pierre Danloux, who was active in Scotland during the late 1790s. Recent images of the picture taken with x-radiography and infrared reflectography certainly demonstrate emphatically that the painting is utterly alien to Raeburn’s normal mode of underpainting, where lead white paint is heavily used to lay in the facial features, and which is mostly absent in ‘The Skating Minister’. The vast majority of independent authorities on European painting around 1800 reject the traditional Raeburn attribution and are supportive of the proposed Danloux re-attribution.
Stephen Lloyd "Artist in focus: Henry Raeburn"  ArtUK website, post of 25 Oct 2012 
https://artuk.org/discover/stories/artist-in-focus-henry-raeburn


References

The two articles from the Burlington Magazine are available in full on JStor: 

Stephen Lloyd, "'Elegant and graceful attitudes': The painter of the 'Skating Minister',  The Burlington Magazine, vol. 147,  no. 1228, July 2005 p.474-486  [available on JStor]
https://www.jstor.org/stable/20074039
Thomson, Duncan. “Raeburn Revisited: The 'Skating Minister'.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 149, no. 1248, 2007, p. 185–190.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/20074764.


Articles in the Scottish press: 


"Experts confess: we always suspected this wasn't a Raeburn:  doubts over iconic work kept quiet for years", The Herald 17 April 2005
https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12492831.Experts_confess__we_always_suspected_this_wasn_apos_t_a_Raeburn_Doubts_over_iconic_work_kept_quiet_for_years/

Raeburn expert to the rescue of striken skater.  The Scotsman 17 April 2005
https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/raeburn-expert-to-the-rescue-of-stricken-skater-1-1389370

"Family records 'prove' skater is Raeburn's"  The Scotsman 29 April 2005
https://www.scotsman.com/news/family-records-prove-skater-is-raeburn-s-1-709696


Tim Cornwell, "Henry Raeburn's Skating Minister on thin ice after x-ray study", The Scotsman,  20 January 2013.
https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/henry-raeburn-s-skating-minister-on-thin-ice-after-x-ray-study-1-2747902


Other articles

 "Mystery over Raeburn prompts a hunt for his missing minister", The Times, 21 January 2013 ,
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mystery-over-raeburn-prompts-a-hunt-for-his-missing-ministers-8ndn5krzp2x

"X-rays suggest Skating Minister 'not by Raeburn'",  BBC News, post of 23 January 2013
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-21161074

 Clarisse Godard Desmarest, "Scotland: Nation, Enlightenment and Empire
The Remaking of Scotland: Nation, Migration, Globalisation 1760-1860, an exhibition presented in Edinburgh at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 16 June 2018 – 27 June 2021",  BooksandIdeas.net, 13 September 2018.
http://www.booksandideas.net/Scotland-Nation-Enlightenment-and-Empire.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=facebook

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Boilly's sans-culotte



Boilly, The Singer Chenard Dressed as a sans-culotte at the Festival of the Liberty of the Savoy, October 14 1792 
Oil on wood, 33.5cm x 22.5cm
Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

Here is another, equally iconic painting by Boilly from the Revolutionary era, now in the Musée Carnavalet.  It comes as a bit of a disappointment to learn that this famous heroic image does not depict a real sans-culotte but the actor and  singer Simon Chenard. The occasion was a festival held in Chambéry in October 1792 to celebrate the new Republic's military victory in the Savoy.  Chenard presumably featured a the performer of patriotic war songs such as the "Hymn of the Marseillaise" which the Convention decreed was to be sung at the celebration. Susan Siegfried comments that the picture resembles a fashion plate, and at one level, functioned as such. (p.41-2)  Chenard personifies the ideal of the Citizen Soldier, with his improvised army uniform over his working clothes.(I particularly like the strange fluffy clogs..) He carries the new national symbol, the tricolour flag inscribed with "La Liberté ou La Mort".  The figure appears as though on a stage, with a fictionalised backdrop of the victory in the Savoy.


Boilly, Double portrait of Chenard and Gérard, c. 1791-96
http://www.artaujourdhui.info/art-aujourdhui-hebdo-00812.html
With his fine baritone voice, Simon Chenard was one of the most popular actors and singers of the day.  He was born in Auxerre in 1758, and first earned fame in Paris in 1782 in the role of Orestes in Gluck's opera Iphigénie en Tauride.  In 1783 he joined the Comédie-Italienne (later the Opéra-Comique) and performed with the company until 1823.  He was one of Boilly's closest friends, living at the same address; when Boilly's first wife died in 1795 he appointed Chenard as guardian of his five children. Their circle included the artists Gérard, Prud'hon and Isabey: Chenard was an avid collector of their paintings and drawings.  He often appears in Boilly's work where he is easily recognised by his long curly hair and bushy sideburns.  He features, for instance in the Reunion of Artists in Isabey's studio, where he stands next to Boilly himself.


Study for the Studio d'Isabey, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille

In the more relaxed political climate of 1799 Boilly produced as a gift for Chenard this whimsical self-portrait en sans-culotte, with a pendant portrait of his friend's mother as a woman of the people [See Siegfried, note.69:  The pictures are labelled on the back, "Portrait de Boilly fait et donné/ à son ami Chenard l'an 1799" and "Portrait de la Bonne Mère de Chenard / fait et donné par Son  Ami Boilly/ l'an 1799].   He also painted trompe-l'oeil versions in grisaille to mimic engravings behind broken glass.  These latter are inscribed with dedications to Friendship (self-portrait) and to Nature (for Chenard's mother).  The visual witticism is perhaps a reference to the 1792 painting: the ideal of the sans-culotte is faded and broken but personal friendship remains intact.


Boilly, Self-portrait 1799, private collection [Pinterest]
Grisailles, known from a photograph in the Bibl. Nationale

References

https://www.themorgan.org/collection
/drawings/246989
Notice from the Musée Carnavalet.
http://parismuseescollections.paris.fr/fr/musee-carnavalet/oeuvres/portrait-du-chanteur-simon-chenard-1758-1832-en-costume-de-sans-culotte#infos-principales

Le Claire Kunst (Gallery): double portrait of Chenard and Gérard
https://www.leclaire-kunst.de/pdf/obj_1106_kat_e.pdf

Susan Siegfried, The Art of Louis-Leopold Boilly: Modern Life in Napoleonic France,  Yale University Press, 2003, p.41-42 (1792 picture) ; 120-1 (later portraits)
For some reason Susan Siegfried has decided that the 1799 portrait represents Chenard rather than Boilly himself, as is usually assumed.  I am not sure why.  Compare this set of family portraits from the Morgan Library, which shows both Chenard and his mother (on the left)

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Boilly's Triumph of Marat




Boilly, The Triumph of Marat, 1794
Oil on paper (seven sheets) mounted on canvas
80cm x 120cm.
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille

Here are a couple of posts on works by Louis-Léopold Boilly from the Revolutionary period.

The iconic Triumph of Marat is one of several canvases bequeathed to the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lille by the artist's son Julien.  In the late 1980s and 1990s the genesis of this  painting and its place in Boilly's oeuvre was the subject of a major revision by the American art historian Susan Siegfried.

Ironically, until this time the picture had been interpreted in a way which tended to confirm Boilly's anti-Revolutionary credentials. Tradition had it that it was painted under duress, in order to vindicate Boilly against charges of anti-Republicanism made against him by a fellow artist from the Lille, the painter Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Wicar.  On 22nd April 1794, at the height of the Terror, Wicar denounced before the patriotic Société Républicaine des Arts, certain works of a shocking obscenity that offended Republican morality, and which must be "burned at the foot of the Tree of Liberty". The Society duly agreed to draw up a list of offending works for presentation to the Committee of Public Safety and the police.  Boilly, who was mentioned by name, was warned of the danger he was in by one of his colleagues - either Baron Gérard or Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson - and improvised this Revolutionary subject in record time.  In some accounts he was even subject to a domiciliary visit and was saved from imprisonment only by the presence of the painting in his studio. The Société was so impressed by his patriotic credentials that in May 1794 it accepted him as one of their members.

Susan Siegfried contested this account.  She pointed out that the idea that Boilly was hostile to Revolutionary subjects and undertook the Marat reluctantly originated only in 1828 with Julien Boilly who was responsible for selling his fathers' works.  Julien Boilly claimed, "one should know that this painting was undertaken out of terror, not inclination" .  However, he did not recount the specific circumstances, noting only that his father recalled being threatened with proscription. Wicar's biographer Beauchamps depicts Boilly triumphantly outmanoeuved  his accuser.  He skilfully defended himself before the Société, drawing on the arguments of engraver Sergent, a Jacobin of impeccable credentials, who held that artists could not be blamed for their pre-Revolutionary subjects and their exploitation by printmakers. As a result the Société not only welcomed him as a member and but dropped, with some relief, Wicar's plans for denunciations.

Although Boilly was no political activist, he had from the first shown a willingness to adapt in order to survive commercially in the new artistic climate created by the Revolution. He took full advantage of the new opportunities to exhibit and welcomed the opening up of the art market. He exhibited regularly at the Salon de la Jeunesse in fashionable venue of Lebrun's gallery - he and his fellow artists styled themselves "les artistes libres" - and was involved in the  foundation of the Société des amis des arts., which sought to expand the availability of commercial art.  He also begun to produce  Revolutionary portraits such as that of  Jan Anthony d'Averhoult, painted in 1792 (Siegfried, Art de Boilly, p.34-6).


Portrait of d'Averhoult, Centraal Museum Utrecht
The real origin of the Marat was the great concours de l'an II which was announced on 24th April, only two days after Wicar's denunciation.  The Revolutionary government  launched a  national painting contest to commemorate the anniversary of Marat's successful acquittal the year before.  The event provided an opportunity to affirm painting in public interest and to provide financial support for patriotic art.  Boilly entered eagarly, presumably for the chance of respectability and commercial gain: despite his efforts, the Revolution had destroyed much of the market for his work and his financial position in 1793-94 was precarious.

The choice of subject for the competition was not prescribed; candidates were invited to enter "their choice on canvas, from the most glorious occasions of the French Revolution".  Far from producing a hurried and makeshift work, Boilly threw himself into the challenge. He prepared no less than three different compositions, taken from Léonard Bourdin's Recueil des actions héroiques et civiques, the officially sponsored popular history of the Revolution: besides the Marat, he created a "Heroic Deed" [Trait héroïque, known from engraving by Simon Petit] and a study of the heroine of Saint-Milhier. The  Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux also possesses an unfinished drawing of the arrest of Charlotte Corday, which must date from this time:


Arrest of Charlotte Corday,  Musée des Beaux-Arts Bordeaux
https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/xir92390fre/the-arrest-of-charlotte-corday-xir92390-fre/#.W4gDsehKiM8

The Marat was by far the most ambitious work he had undertaken, and the first of the complex multi-figure compositions which later came to characterise his work. On 28th May 1794 he submitted an elaborate finished drawing, now in the musée Lambinet. He then immediately began on the full version.   

Triumph of Marat, black ink and wash on brown paper. 66.5 cm x 80.7 cm.
Musée Lambinet, Versailles
The unfinished state of the present  canvas is easily explained by political events, for  Boilly judiciously withdrew his works for the competition less than a month after the fall of Robespierre.  However, he continued to enter public competitions in the Revolutionary period, notably in 1799 when he submitted his splendid, but politically uncontentious Reunion of Artists in Isabey's studio. Julien Boilly subsequently had the Marat mounted (it is painted on seven separate sheets of paper) and possibly retouched it, though to what degree he added to the composition is uncertain.




The triumph of Marat was an unusual and daring subject.  Only two of the other 140 entries to the competition represented Marat and both were depictions of his assassination.  Boilly sought to situate the occasion, now made acceptable by Marat's death, in history of revolutionary journées. 

As is often pointed out, the real subject of the picture is the crowd - in Boilly's hands this becomes a respectable and orderly grouping, suitably removed from the Revolutionary canaille.(The figure with the red bonnet in front of Marat is generally considered to be a self-portrait.)  The elaborately studied mise-en-scene recalls David's Oath of the Tennis Court; Susan Siegfried also compares Charles Thévelin's depiction of the crowd in his Festival of the Federation, 1792. 

The curator at Lille, Annie Scottez-De Wambrechies, comments: 

Boilly's painting represents a highly individual artistic contribution.  He deliberately avoids a theatrical treatment of the incident or any apotheosis of Marat, instead describing the event with an attentive objectivity little practised at that period, neither deviating into the grotesque nor the anecdotal occasionally characteristic of his drawings.  The retouches by Julien Boilly do not alter the painting's intrinsic quality:  a spontaneity of drawing and of pictorial realisation contribute to a remarably masterful representation of a crowd - of which Boilly would produce other examples under the Empire.

The scene: 
Marat was accused on 12 April 1792 of attempting to use his newspaper to destroy the Convention.  He was arrested, but escaped from prison and appeared on the eve of judgment at the Palais de Justice on the 23rd, where  he was the object of zealous attention from municipal officials and police administration.  He was given a room for the night at the tribunal, brought dishes from the restaurant and decanters of wine.  The following day, 24th April, the Grand'Chambre was crowded to capacity.  Briquet, one of the tipstaffs of the tribunal had sold seats.  The judges entered.  Marat appeared and haranged the crowd:  he was not a guilty man "but the apostle and martyr of liberty".  He took effective control of proceedings  and was immediately triumphantly acquitted.  The crowd climbed over the barriers, hoisted Marat onto a table, and festooned him with palms and wreaths; he was then  carried triumphantly through the Palais and down the steps of the Cours du Mai.


Of some interest to the historian is Boilly's depiction of the great gallery of the Palais de Justice, the Salle des Pas Perdus, in the Revolutionary period.  According to Lenotre in pre-Revolutionary days this was the crowded centre of the judicial world.  Around each of the pillars were stalls, let out at high rental to "booksellers, jewellers, public scriveners, shoemakers, sword-cutlers, and even pastry-cooks and lace makers".  By the central Gros Pilier congregated the most celebrated advocates and influential personages of the day.  In Boilly's picture, the gallery appears stripped of its finery, adorned only by an austere neoclassical frieze. At the right of the picture, is the door which led directly from the Grand'Chambre of the Parlement, now the seat of the Revolutionary Tribunal.  The sculpted figure must be one of the bas-reliefs for the doors, "both in the interior and exterior of the hall", commissioned in 1792 from the Jacobin sculptor Francois Daujon.  Lenotre, The Tribunal of the Terror; a study of Paris in 1793-1795 (1909), p.2; 16-17. 
https://archive.org/details/tribunalofterror00lenoiala



References

Susan Siegfried, The Art of Louis-Leopold Boilly: Modern Life in Napoleonic France,  Yale University Press, 2003, chpt 2, p.29-52.

Notice on website of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille
http://www.pba-lille.fr/Collections/Chefs-d-OEuvre/Peintures-XVI-sup-e-sup-XXI-sup-e-sup-siecles/Le-Triomphe-de-Marat/(plus)

Annie Scottez-De Wambrechies, [Conservateur at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille]
 Masterworks from the Musée Des Beaux-arts, Lille.  No 30 "The Triumph of Marat",
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6uF14vnyP4kC&pg=PA143#v=onepage&q&f=false