A 19th century religious masterpiece finally restored

1. Jean-Louis Bezard (1799-1881)
Christ of Consolation, 1846
Oil on canvas - 298 x 191 cm
Agen, cathédrale
Photo : CRPA - Gaillac

22/12/08 – Restoration – Agen, Cathedral – In the Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art français 2001, which appeared in 2002, we published the catalogue of Jean-Louis Bezard’s works [1], an artist who today has been forgotten but who obtained the Prix de Rome in 1829 and decorated no less than six churches in Paris.
True, he was a painter of sometimes erratic quality and certainly no Ingres, not even Flandrin. He nonetheless had an abundant production which included some beautiful pieces at times. This is without a doubt the case for Christ of Consolation (ill. 1). In our article, we wrote : “A restoration […] has been planned and it should be hung in the cathedral in Agen.” It will have taken several years for the project to be carried out : the painting has just been restored and will be installed in the cathedral, on the left as you enter (through the right transept).

The canvas has known a difficult past. While we were doing our research, we had seen it sitting in the wide-open hangar of a removal company, in very poor condition even though it had not been touched essentially (ill. 2). How did it ever end up there ? It was simply the result of official vandalism carried out in the most ordinary way. Bezard created an extensive décor for the chapel of the Hospice Saint-Jean in Agen, built in 1840, in 1845-1846. This included five large compositions, medallions on a gold background representing saints as well as full-length figures of Saint Peter and the evangelists in the half-dome of the choir. This ensemble, along with the stained-glass windows for which Bezard also did the cartoons, survived in rather good condition until the late 1980’s when it was destroyed by the Conseil Général du Lot-et-Garonne in order to install its meeting room in the chapel. No one knows what happened to the stained glass and only the Christ of Consolation escaped the slaughter [2] .

2. Jean-Louis Bezard (1799-1881)
Christ of Consolation
Photographed circa 2000 in a hangar
Photo : D. Rykner

The painting was never presented at the Salon de Paris. The title is known by the description left by Adolphe Magen in an article published in 1855 about the décor in the chapel [3] . The subject is identical to the one found in a canvas by Ary Scheffer which was presented at the Salon de 1837 (Dordrechts Museum, a version is held at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam). Bezard’s Christ, however, is not political like Scheffer’s who not only consoled the sick and the dying but also the Polish during their oppression and slaves. He contents himself, with the help of an angel, by helping a family in their despair. The sick, or dying, mother, is holding her newborn while her other child wipes a tear from his face. The most mysterious figure in the group is the father who is prostrated on the right holding a pencil (or a brush ?) in his hand which is on a book ; with the left hand he is leaning on a canvas or drawing paper. He might be an artist.

The restoration, which was funded by the Conseil Général, was carried out by the Centre de Conservation et de Restauraion du Patrimoine Artistique de Gaillac. It consisted in cleaning the back, eliminating the built-up dirt from the canvas and lightening the varnish, filling in the cracks and putting back missing spots ; the canvas was reinforced and a new chassis was added. The final result, as seen in the photographs and the information provided in the restoration file, seems very successful.
The Christ of Consolation, once deposited in the Agen cathedral will join another of Jean-Louis Bezard’s fine achievements, the décor in the choir and the two adjoining chapels. Both have been restored recently with great care under the guidance of the Chief architect for Monuments Historiques, Stéphane Thouin [4].

Version française

Didier Rykner, lundi 22 décembre 2008


[1] Didier Rykner, “Jean-Louis Bezard (1799-1881). Catalogue de l’œuvre », Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art français, année 2001, 2002, p. 241-299.

[2] Reproductions for the five compositions (Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation of Christ at the Temple, Presentation of the Virgin and Assumption) and of a stained-glass window (Saint Louis) can be found in our article quoted in note 1, pages 269-270.

[3] Adolphe Magen « La chapelle de l’hospice Saint-Jacques à Agen », Recueil des travaux de la Société d’architectures, sciences et arts d’Agen, 1854-1855, t. VII, p. 260-274.

[4] Alas, in 1996-1997, Saint Anne’s chapel to the right of the choir was massacred by an over-zealous restoration which painted over most of the original compositions.

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