Tuesday, 15 September 2020

David's gaoler

? David, Portrait of an unknown man, presumed to be his gaoler, c.1794
1794 Oil on canvas. 
55.5cm x 46cm 

This striking portrait attributed to David is to be found in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen.

A modern label on the back states that it was painted by David in prison and that the subject was "his gaoler". According to this note, the picture was the possession of  the gaoler's son, a retired military officer living in Compiègne, who gave it as a token to gratitude to his doctor, a certain Josset (sometime given as Gosset).  The  museum acquired the painting  in 1931 when it was sold by one of the doctor's descendants.

With only this information to go on,  the attribution to David  rests mainly on connoisseurship; according to the Rouen website: 

The treatment of the eyes, the finely, delineated hair, the garments treated with the "frottis" technique [ie. rubbing through liquid paint to the priming using the fingers or a very broad brush] and certain details in the shirt are all typical of David's work. Apart from the style of the painting, its incompleteness and the masterly sketch revealed under infrared light are two further indications enabling an attribution to David, in a confused period when it is difficult to study the master’s works.

The possibility that the picture could indeed be a David was cautiously accepted by Antoine Schnapper and Arlette Sérullaz in their catalogue of 1989, and this seems to have become the new orthodoxy.  However, there have always been dissenting voices:  the British art historian David Cooper judged it to be a Romantic-style portrait of c1815 which could not possibly be by David and might even be by Géricault. [Review of  the Bi-centenary exhibition of 1948,  Burlington Magazine vol. 90, no.547].  This does not seem unreasonable; a pupil might well imitate the master's techniques.

Could David really have painted the portrait in prison?

Theoretically it is possible.  David was arrested on 15 Thermidor, 2nd August 1794 and held first by  the Gendarmerie Nationale in the Hôtel des Fermes, rue de Grenelle, then on 15th September transferred to the Luxembourg Prison.  His captivity was not physically onerous and he was almost immediately provided with the wherewithal to paint.  At the  Hôtel des Fermes, he was was pleased to find himself accommodated in the studio of  a former pupil, the son of the concierge Leger. Another pupil, Delafontaine, was immediately sent out to procure an easel, canvas, paints and brushes, as well as the mirror David  used to paint  his famous self-portrait.  At the Luxembourg David was able to begin work on the preliminary studies for the Sabine women.  His known works from 1794 also include an album of pencil sketches, the  self-portrait, two drawings on the theme of Homer, and possibly - though this too is contested - the view of the Jardin du Luxembourg in the Louvre.  

David was briefly released from prison in December 1794 but rearrested on 29th May 1795 in the wake of the Prairial Uprising.  It was during this second period of imprisonment that he created a series of medallion-shaped portraits of the Montagnard deputies imprisoned with him in the Collège des Quatre Nations, the best-known of which depicts Jeanbon Saint-André (left, in the Art Institute of Chicago).  

Also from this time are the famous portraits of Charles Sériziat and his wife, painted in Autumn 1795, shortly after his final release.

To superficial observer, the resemble to the Rouen portrait is not evident.  The medallions, in ink and wash, are wholly different in both technique and mood.  The soft gaze and heroic masculinity of the gaoler is at odds with the unsentimental realism and sobriety of these attested works.

What about a possible subject? 

The "gaoler", if he existed, remains unidentified.  One candidate who can be discounted is  Leger, the concierge at Hôtel des Fermes mentioned by Jules David.  This was Pierre-Mathieu Leger (d.1790) who was not  a prison official, but the "contrôleur des Fermes",  in the period before the Hôtel became a detention centre.  His son, David's pupil Jean-Mathieu Leger is also excluded, since he had  enrolled in 1792 in the Compagnie des Arts, Section du Louvre, and was serving in Belgium at this time. (To the intense sorrow of his friend Gros,  Leger was to die prematurely in 1799 at age of twenty-five, leaving behind a wife and children.)

Another, more promising, possibility is the concierge at the Quatre-Nations, Blanchelaine,  who reported David's illness to the Committee of General Security in 1795 (see Ewa Lajer-Bucharth, Necklines, p.322 nt.64).  This is probably the same Blanchelaine who refused to surrender Lebas to the police in Thermidor.  He may also be the concierge at La Force whose wife is mentioned affectionately by Dupont de Nemours in his prison memoirs (Philosophie de l'Univers, p.275).  .

As things stand, the sitter is unknown, and it would undoubtedly be safer to reject the picture from the canon of David's work.  However, the story of the forgotten gaoler, his soldier son and the generous gift to a doctor in Compiègne remains an appealing one.  How did this tale come into being, I wonder, and could it even be true?


Musée des Beaux Arts, Rouen: Jacques-Louis David, "Portrait présumé de son geôlier"

Wikipedia article, "Le Geôlier" 

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