A painting by Benjamin West acquired by the Louvre

Benjamin West (1738-1820)
Phaeton Asking Apollo to Drive the
Sun Chariot
, 1804 (before restoration)
Oil on canvas - 142 x 213 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Musée du Louvre

29/07/2007 — Acquisition — Paris, Musée du Louvre — The Louvre, with few American paintings in its collections, has decided to implement a proactive policy of acquisitions in this field. Hence the recent purchase of its first canvas by Benjamin West although in this instance the artist can also be considered as belonging to the English School since he spent most of his working life in London starting in 1763, after a three-year stay in Italy. In 1792 he succeeded Reynolds as president of the Royal Academy in London. He exhibited there in 1804 Phaeton Asking Apollo to Drive the Sun Chariot (ill.) which has just been acquired by the museum from the Richard Feigen Gallery.

West availed himself of a neoclassical style combined with an already pre-Romantic ardour such as revealed in his King Lear (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) which dates from 1788. That same year, another painting belonging to the Queen of England, Edward the IIIrd Crossing the Somme River, strangely foreshadows by a half-century the Gallery of Battles in Versailles. The Phaeton in the Louvre is still fully neoclassical by its frieze composition and the physical features of its figures. Guillaume Faroult very rightly pointed out to us that the Apollo here is quite close to that of the Apollo Belvedere. He also added that West’s stay in Paris in 1802 allowed him to see the two paintings that Girodet exhibited that year at the Salon : The Shadows of the French Heros Welcomed by Ossian which might have inspired West for the figures of the Hours in the background of the composition and Endymion, a possible source for his Phaeton.

The recent history of this painting is worth telling since it illustrates the way in which Dutch museums, a little known fact, have undertaken in the last few years a policy of deaccessioning similar to the one in American museums, making it an exception in Europe and a mistaken one at that. In 2005, the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem thus decided to sell off two works, this Benjamin West and a painting by Michael Sweerts (The Drawing Lesson, also known as The Academy), justifying its action by saying that these works were not coherent as part of the collection [1] and that it needed to raise funding to build storerooms. The only problem being that the Benjamin West, which had never been displayed and whose location was unknown to West specialists since the XIXth C., had been acquired by the institution in mysterious circumstances. The museum therefore had to negotiate with the heirs of the last owner and the selling price was divided between the two parties.

The painting’s troubled past seems to have convinced the Louvre not to talk about it, although a quick check on the net easily provides all the needed details. There is of course no shame in buying a work sold by another museum. On the contrary, it allows the painting to remain in a public collection.
The scandal arises rather from the fact that the Haarlem Museum let go of a magnificent work [2], and moreover by selling it through an art dealer instead of negotiating directly with another museum, making it a lesser evil.

Version française

Didier Rykner, dimanche 29 juillet 2007


[1] This (poor) argument recalls the one stated by the Albright-Knox Gallery when seeking to rid itself of its antique works. Paradoxically enough, the Sweerts painting had been the subject of a published exhibit organized by the museum in 2003. The painting seems to have been sold but we have not found confirmation of it.

[2] The painting is photographed here before restoration, “as is” and in very satisfactory condition.

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