Charles Mellin

Charles Mellin. Un Lorrain entre Rome et Naples (Charles Mellin. A native of Lorraine between Rome and Naples
Nancy (France), Musée des Beaux-Arts, from May 4, 2007 to August 27, 2007. Then Caen (France), Musée des Beaux-Arts, from September 21, 2007 to December 31, 2007.

This is decidedly a rich year for lovers of French XVIIth C. painting. After Jacques Stella and Philippe de Champaigne, it is Charles Mellin’s turn to enjoy the honor of a retrospective currently in Nancy and which will then travel to Caen [1].

This artist, unlike the two others, is an unknown survivor in the history of French art. It is tempting to compare his case to that of Georges de la Tour since they were both from the Lorraine region and because they both fell into total oblivion until the XXth C. The resemblance stops there. One cannot imagine two more dissimilar artists. Mellin spent his whole career in Italy whereas La Tour probably never left his homeland (although a trip to Italy may have taken place, it has never been proven). Mellin worked on murals and was little influenced by the Caravaggesque style (with the exception perhaps of the portrait which recently entered the Louvre-see News of May 16, 2007). Finally, since being rediscovered at the beginning of the last century La Tour has become one of the most popular old masters while Mellin, brought to light more recently, remains unknown to the public.

1. Charles Mellin (1598/99-1649)
The Holy Family with the Infant St. John
Oil on canvas - 58,5 x 74,5 cm
Paris, private collection
Photo : Press office

Mellin has often been compared unfavourably, and unfairly, to Nicolas Poussin. Although lacking his genius, Mellin is an excellent painter whose style has nothing to do with Poussin’s. The misunderstanding, as underlined by Philippe Malgouyres, author of the catalog and in charge of the exhibition, stems from the art historian Doris Wild who, while being a major contributor to his rediscovery, committed a serious misinterpretation in qualifying him as a less talented imitator of Poussin. Stella suffered, to a certain extent, the same injustice just as unfairly. If at times the graphic art in Mellin’s work evokes that of his elder and if this confusion is heightened by the mention “Posino” on many of his drawings, his painting is generally very different. Only very few canvases are in the manner of Poussin, such as The Holy Family with the Young Saint John belonging to a private collection (ill. 1). Inversely, some of Poussin’s paintings, primarily The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus in the Vatican, recall Mellin’s style. They crossed paths at the church of Saint-Louis-des-Français in Rome where Mellin won out against Poussin et Lanfranco in the bid to decorate the chapel of the Virgin. There is no doubt that they knew each other but neither one imitated the other.

The Poussin question is not the only one worth asking about the painter. His relationship to Simon Vouet, that with the Muti family, the decoration of the choir at the Abbey in Monte-Cassino which was destroyed and the last years in Naples are also to be considered. The exhibit raises each of these and successfully answers most of them.

2. Simon Vouet or his worksohp (left) - Ascribed to Charles Mellin (right)
Angels with Instruments of Christ’s Passion
Oil on canvas - 102 x 78 cm
Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte
Photo : D. Rykner

Mellin’s early career was marked by Vouet with whom he collaborated. It is thus important in the Roman period to pick out Mellin’s work. It is the case for example for the series of twelve paintings representing angels with instruments of Christ’s Passion. Some of these are lost. The different style of each of the angels incites Malgouyres, like other experts before him, to see various artists, and suggests Mellin for the Angel Bearing the Purple Robe and Lance shown here next to the one holding the tunic and the dice, more probably by Simon Vouet himself (ill. 2). This attribution seems perfectly convincing when comparing it to canvases that are acknowledged as being by Mellin. One sees already those elements that define his style which is described precisely in the catalog, notably the soft draping effect of the white robes and which constitutes a “true signature” [2].

3. Charles Mellin (1598/99-1649)
Oil on canvas - 108 x 86 cm
Paris, private collection
Photo : Press office

Having freed himself from Vouet’s influence after the latter left for Paris, Mellin became the official painter of the Marquis Muti Papazzurri for whom he decorated a palace (some of the elements of the décor are still there). He also taught his two sons, amateur painters, who used him, mutatis mutandis, as a ghostwriter in literature : the works painted by Mellin at this time, with the help of the Muti sons, were for a long time thought to be by “Cavalier Muti” or the “brother of Cavalier Muti”. The exhibit demonstrates in a clear manner that all of these Muti paintings (the two brothers stopped painting after Mellin’s departure) are in fact works done by him, at least as concerns their actual execution. Philippe Malgouyres suggests that the compositions, which he judges to be awkward, might belong to the Muti brothers, whereas the painting is due for the most part, that is to say the major figures, to Mellin. It is possible, given Mellin’s relationship as an employee to the Marquis, that his students and amateur painters imposed their composition. This, “the idea” in the XVIIth C., was considered the most essential part of the work, thus explaining why the paintings remained for so long under the incongruous name of Muti. In any case, one can only agree with Malgouyres’ conclusion that the works were executed for the most part by Mellin and that the Muti brothers painted only minor scenes. The exhibit displays in a most pleasant manner Mellin’s known works (ill. 3). All of them were intended as gifts, as was the manner at the time in order to gain favour, to the Barberini family.

4. Charles Mellin (1598/99-1649)
The Assumption of the Virgin
Oil on canvas - 98,1 x 103,1 cm
Puerto Rico, Museo de Arte de Ponce
Photo : Prss office

One of Mellin’s masterpieces is undoubtedly the Assumption at the Museo de Arte de Ponce (ill. 4) which was exhibited in Paris in 1982. Once again, one understands here why Poussin’s name might arise (his Assumption at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. rather than the one at the Louvre). But the brilliant colors and the baroque composition place the painting in the Roman period of around 1630 and Philippe Malgouyre points out how Mellin’s work fits perfectly in this setting. The Bolognese culture imported by Lanfranco and Domenichino to Rome, the ardour of Bernini’s paintings (or those of his workshop) are the foundation on which Mellin’s art developed.

5. Charles Mellin (1598/99-1649)
The Stoning of Saint Stephen
Oil on canvas - 189 x 283 cm
Caen, église Saint-Etienne
Photo : D. Rykner

Certain enigmas remain. For instance, the Portrait of a Man at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Berlin, still poses problems in its attribution all the more frustrating given its masterpiece quality. Although he does not provide a definite answer, Philippe Malgouyres, situates it in the middle of the catalog and not at the end, with the rejected works. This means perhaps that, despite his doubts, he tends toward acknowledging this work which he nevertheless states is “almost too beautiful for our artist.” Its absence in the exhibit is extremely regrettable. Another question : the Virgin with Child in Glory with Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Peter, is also missing from the show. It is difficult to judge from a photograph whether the attribution suggested by Eric Schleier is valid.

Some absences are disappointing, especially two canvases representing saint deacons, belonging to the collections of the Patrimonio Nacional Espanol that the present author was fortunate enough, along with Olivier Bonfait, to acknowledge as painted by Mellin. One of them is almost identical to the Saint Stephen in Valenciennes. A comparison of the two works would have been interesting.

6. Charles Mellin (1598/99-1649)
The Stoning of Saint Stephen
Oil on canvas - 48 x 66 cm
San Casciano, Bandini-Granelli Collection
Photo : D. Rykner

The Lapidation of Saint Stephen from the church of Saint-Etienne in Caen (ill. 5) was attributed by Jacques Thuillier to Pierre Mélin, an artist known for only one engraving which does not have much in common, as pointed out by Malgouyres, with the style of this painting.
It was Pierre Rosenberg who put Mellin’s name on it, and it is presented here conditionally. The exhibit leaves no doubt that the painting is indeed by the master from Lorraine, as is the study published here for the first time (ill. 6). This attribution is moreover confirmed by a comparison between a study for the lapidated saint (ill. 7) and the Saint Stephen in Valenciennes.

7. Charles Mellin (1598/99-1649)
Saint Stephen
Oil on canvas - 61 x 48,5 cm
Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : D. Rykner

As concerns the latter, it should be noticed that the exhibit displays several studies by Mellin : one from Rouen for a niche in the cloister at Trinità-dei-Monti in Rome, one from the Lemme collection next to its final painting, the Rapture of Saint Dominic in Viterba, and the Sacrifice of Abel in Stockholm (the one acquired by Nancy — ill. 8 — is a ‘ricordo’ of it and not a preliminary study) all of which are known to us. On the other hand, those for The Coronation of the Virgin with Saint John the Baptist, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Georges, an Angel and Two Donors (cat. 18) and for the Saint Stephen in Caen are shown here for the first time. Bringing together these studies is helpful in understanding the style of the painter and the manner in which he worked.

8. Charles Mellin (1598/99-1649)
The Sacrifice of Abel
Oil on canvas - 38 x 29,5 cm
Nancy, Musée Lorrain
Photo : Musée Lorrain, G. Mangin

It is well known that Mellin’s most important work as a décor artist, the choir at the abbey of Monte-Cassino, was totally destroyed in one of the most controversial operations of the American army in Italy [3]. Unable to find good photographs of the compositions painted by our artist, Philippe Malgouyres was nevertheless able to reconstruct the layout and the sense of the décor thanks to a few existing long-distance views and numerous preliminary drawings. He also reveals the existence of another ensemble that has disappeared, documented in archives, which is that of the chapel of the Royal Palace in Naples besides informing us as well that the frescoes in the chapel of the Virgin in the church of Saint-Louis-des-Français in Rome were very poorly restored in 1993-1994.

9. Charles Mellin (1598/99-1649)
The Annunciation
Pen, brown ink and wash - 20,6 x 21,2 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : Musée Fabre, Frédéric Jaulmes

The end of Mellin’s career in Naples when the painter is still a young man remains surprising. The Immaculate Conception in the church of Santa Maria di Donnaregina Nuova in Naples (absent in the exhibit but well rendered in a reproduction in the catalog), although of Stanzione influence, still reminds one clearly of the artist’s Roman period but his Annunciation, executed for the same church, would have been difficult to attribute without his signature. Mellin shows here, no doubt under the influence of Neapolitan painting, a Caravaggesque style that he had shied away from earlier in his career mixed with a classical composition which was already visible for example in The Sacrifice of Abel in Monte-Cassino.

Mellin’s style in drawing is now well known, at least as refers to his ink and wash drawings of which there are abundant examples. Philippe Malgouyres points out that no red chalk or black chalk can be unconditionally attributed to him. The most Poussin-like of his paintings, the Holy Family of which we spoke earlier and which bears his signature, enables Malgouyres however to attribute a red chalk belonging to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon to the artist. This drawing will be shown in Caen [4] and it will be interesting to compare it to the paintings and other drawings to form an opinion. There is no doubt that other red chalk works await identification under other names today.

Several drawings are listed in the catalog by Philippe Malgouyres as copies after known works. He acknowledges moreover that only the existence of two almost identical versions makes it possible to discard one of them from his corpus. It is unfortunate that none of these copies is displayed, hampering a comparison not entirely possible when based only on the reproductions in the catalog. Let us merely point out that, for instance, the copy of the Presentation at the Temple (cat. D46a) takes up both the graphic elements of the supposed original and is even more “Mellinistic” than it since the heads of the characters are blank, with no indications for eyes, nose or mouth, a stylistic trait which is quite frequent in Mellin. If it is a copy, one must acknowledge a close familiarity of its author with the artist, implying maybe of his same circle.

10. Circle of Charles Mellin ?
Saint Stephen
Oil on canvas - 101 x 139 cm
Ajaccio, Musée Fesch
Photo : RMN

Mellin did not really have a workshop even if certain documents list the names of painters that were trained by him. One of them was Nicolas Labbé to whom Philippe Malgouyres attributes several paintings of the same cycle, in Marseille, and of which an Annunciation is presented here showing many similar points with Mellin’s style. The commissioner remarks with regret that a painting from the Musée de Rennes, which he attributes to Labbé on stylistic criteria, was not included in the exhibit. On a recent trip to Rennes, this Saint Catherine had in fact struck us by its resemblance to Mellin’s work, a fact already mentioned by Sylvain Laveissière. It is indeed unfortunate that the work could not be displayed here allowing a comparison with the one from Marseille as well as to Mellin’s acknowledged paintings.

On a different note, we could not find in the list of rejected works a Saint Stephen from the Musée Fesch in Ajaccio (ill. 10), attributed to the Italian school and for which the name of Mellin has already been brought up. Assuredly, such an attribution deserves to be mentioned.

After visiting the exhibit, should one still consider Mellin a secondary artist ? Without ranking him alongside Poussin, he deserves to be judged on his own standing. The fact that the names of Velazquez and Bernini were mentioned in the past when referring to some of his paintings speaks for itself. The exhibition is, in any case, quite an achievement, as is its museography. It reveals a clearcut figure of the artist and places him squarely in the art movements of the time. The show opens new leads for future research as well by suggesting, for instance, the study of Nicolas Labbé.

Philippe Malgouyres, Charles Mellin, un Lorrain entre Rome et Naples, Somogy Editions d’Art, 328 p., 45 €. ISBN : 978-2-7572-0078-0.

Didier Rykner, vendredi 27 juillet 2007


[1] This review is about the presentation in Nancy.

[2] This characteristic is emphasized by Philippe Malgouyres concerning another painting, Painting Drawing Love at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux.

[3] The destruction of this abbey was completely unfounded as the German troops had already withdrawn.

[4] For obvious conservation reasons, the drawings displayed in Nancy and Caen are different. Another drawing, D4, which will also be shown only in Caen, seems too poor to be attributed to Mellin and too different from his style. Philippe Malgouyres is also unsure about it and suggests that it might be a drawing by one of the Muti brothers.

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