A Paul Baudry Painting Pre-empted by the Musée d’Orsay

24/6/12 - Acquisition - Paris, Musée d’Orsay - The Musée d’Orsay pre-empted a painting by Paul Baudry representing the Portrait of the Son of Countess Swieytowska as a Young Saint John (ill. 1) at the Christie’s Paris auction on 21 June. This type of "historical" portrait, where the model is represented as a mythological (very rarely religious) figure is more characteristic of the 18th century. However, in this case it is not very surprising coming from an artist who often found inspiration in Rococo painting.

1. Paul Baudry (1828-1886)
Portrait of the Son of Countess Swieytowska
as a Young Saint John
, 1860
Oil on Canvas - 115 x 83 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Christie’s

2. Paul Baudry (1828-1886)
Saint John the Baptist as a Child, 1857
Oil on Canvas - 85 x 95 cm
Amiens, Musée de Picardie
Photo : Musée de Picardie

This Saint John the Baptist as a Child is the second of the same subject produced by Baudry. The first was exhibited at the Salon of 1857 and acquired by Napoleon III on the "liste civile" before joining the Musée du Luxembourg, then sent to the Musée d’Amiens where it still resides today (ill. 2). It shows the saint, sitting on the ground, holding the lamb in his arms.

The painting acquired by Orsay was exhibited four years later at the Salon where it was noticed especially by Maxime Du Camp and by Théophile Gautier. The latter wrote : "One could not possibly imagine anything more divinely child-like than this young Polish Saint John nor a more delicate tone. The landscape is sketched in with this negligence and application so particular to the artist and which enhance the figures so well. - By glazing it with a gilt varnish, Leonardo da Vinci would have willingly included this beautiful child in one of his holy families."
Jean Rousseau, the anonymous critic at Le Figaro was less enthusiastic : "I will not pause at Mr. Baudry’s portraits. These are his less accomplished paintings on view. The best one is that of the son of Madame the Countess of Swieytowska as the young Saint John. A quite fine landscape ; uncombed hair well done ; a head shaped with infinite care. But, for goodness’ sake, he looks so affected and sheepish, this young Saint John from high society ! he looks so out of place in his desert ! the cold and the fear make his knees turn in ! He seems upset to find himself without a shirt - And then, what is the use of this mascarade ? It is nothing new ; its companion pieces abound in 18th century art. This young Saint John might have worn, at that time, the bow and arrows of a mythological Cupid [...]."

Neither one nor the other, perhaps less honorable, but not so mediocre : Paul Baudry’s work reveals a real charm which, obviously, in the eyes of a 19th century observer, might blend in with a certain kitsch aspect underscored by the disguise. There are very few religious paintings in the artist’s production. However, just like the other young Saint John in Amiens or even the Mary Magdalene at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes, this canvas cannot really be considered as being religious. It will join several portraits and only two mythological scenes (just one of which is in large format and was exhibited at the Salon) by an artist whose most famous masterpiece remains the décor in the Grand Foyer of the Garnier Opera house in Paris (see article in French).

Version française

Didier Rykner, mardi 26 juin 2012

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