Charles Meynier

Boulogne-Billancourt, from 14 March to 21 June 2008.
Dijon, Musée Magnin, from 11 July to 12 October 2008.

This review could have just as easily appeared in the Publications section. Indeed, the exhibition organized by the Bibliothèque Marmottan accompanies the monographic study published by Isabelle Mayer-Michalon at Arthéna and which is much more than a simple catalogue.

Thus, the Bibliothèque Marmottan is currently presenting a group of paintings and drawings by Charles Meynier, Neo-Classical artist and student of Vincent, for a few weeks before it continues on to the Musée Magnin in Dijon. The painter is little-known outside of the more specialized circle of art historians. It is of course true that Meynier is not on a level with the grand masters of the era, David, Gros and Girodet but he is an endearing figure, an excellent draughtsman, quite skilled at painted sketches, a bit less so in medium-sized formats which are stiff and awkward. Concerning the latter, and as there should always be an exception to the rule, the figure which appears on the exhibition poster deserves a closer look. This Justice (ill. 1), from a series of four Virtues originally hanging at the Tuileries and then placed over the doors of the château de Vincennes, is not just something of a miracle – it had been considered lost since WWII but resurfaced in the castle itself just a few years ago [1] — but also a masterpiece.
The size of the rooms along with the cost of transporting and insuring the works has unfortunately prevented the display of the large formats many of which are at Versailles where they are not easily available for viewing. They would have confirmed the fact that the painter is partial to monumental compositions in which his skills are put to best advantage. A walk through the Louvre with eyes looking upward is enough proof that Meynier was above all a decorator.

1. Charles Meynier (1763-1832)
Justice, 1815
Oil on canvas - 137 x 122 cm
Vincennes, Service historique de
la Défense, département Marine

Starting in 1801, the painter’s status, among the highest ranking in the French school at the time, is revealed by an order for a décor in the Parisian palace, The Earth Receiving from the Emperors Adrian and Justinian the Code of Roman Laws Dictated by Nature, Justice and Wisdom, for the present Salon de la Reine (in the former apartments of Anne d’Autriche). In 1814, for a Salon in the Tuileries, Meynier executed another ceiling, an Allegory of the Birth of Louis XIV, fortunately removed before the destruction of the Palace thus escaping from a fire and now preserved in the Louvre without, alas, being displayed [2]. A preliminary study, formerly in the Ciechanowiecki collection, and not seen since the sale at Drouot in 2002, is still marked “whereabouts unknown” ; rediscovered recently in a private collection, it is presented in Boulogne-Billancourt despite its rather weak quality. Nevertheless, this enables the exhibition to display, also thanks to modelli, all of the compositions painted for the Louvre and the Tuileries. Another three ceilings followed the first two commissions ; the former are all preserved in situ [3]. In them the author deploys a real sense of spatial dimensions with compositions evoking the art of Le Brun, a compromise between Classicism and Baroque passion.

2. Charles Meynier (1763-1832)
The Peace of Presbourg, 1806
Pen and brown ink, grey and brown wash - 48.5 x 83 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN

At the very end of the century, Meynier had already participated in a decorative project, probably never finished, but for which there remain five large paintings represented only by two studies in the exhibition [4]. This ensemble was supposed to decorate the Gallery of the Muses at the Hôtel Boyer-Fonfrède in Toulouse. They have recently entered the Cleveland Museum in the United States after having been in a Swiss collection. The absence of these Neo-Classical masterpieces is made up for in part by four canvases representing antique statues, recently restored and deposited by the Louvre on this occasion at the Musée de la Révolution française in Vizille.
We will end our review of Meynier as a decorator by recalling the ceiling of the Palais Brongniart in Paris, which in the past housed the stock exchange, also painted by Meynier in grisaille with the participation of Abel de Pujol. Visitors to the Salon du Dessin do not always think of looking up… His position as official artist, with Vivant Denon’s support, gained him other commissions, such as the preparatory drawings for the sculptures on the Arch of Triumph at the Carrousel (ill. 2). As Isabelle Mayer points out, his style as a draughtsman lent itself well to the transcription into sculpture.

3. Charles Meynier (1763-1832)
Milon of Croton, 1795
Oil on canvas - 61 x 50.5 cm
Montréal, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : MBAM

As always, the work edited by Arthena is superb. The successful formula combines a thorough analytical text of the painter’s life and art, a catalogue raisonné of all of his works and an extensive "appareil critique". The only regret might be the choice of illustrating the Cleveland paintings on fold-out pages (p. 30 to 36). The layout, although allowing a comparison side by side of four compositions, is not a satisfying one : the pages have to be folded out carefully and risk being torn each time.
Meynier has never been studied closely before and thus several rediscoveries have been made. Isabelle Mayer-Michalon shows notably that he was born in 1763 and not in 1768 which, as she observes, does not put him in another generation but is far from being a mere detail as five years significantly modify his place in a “period that rich in talented painters”. Numerous works, mostly drawings, are published here for the first time. We should also point out that the Musée de Montréal a few years ago acquired a very beautiful Milon of Croton (ill. 3) which is not shown in Boulogne but will be present in Dijon.

4. Charles Meynier (1763-1832)
Napoléon Bonaparte
First Consul
, 1804
Oil on canvas - 225 x 160 cm
Bruxelles, Musées de la Ville de Bruxelles,
Hôtel de Ville
Photo : MBAM

Strangely, but this only serves to underline Meynier’s problems with medium-sized formats, he painted very few portraits at a time when the genre was in fact a principal source of income for many artists. Most of the ones he produced are displayed here. Although honourable (ill. 4), they are nevertheless far from demonstrating the quality which might be expected. This is not the case however for one of the rare known religious compositions. Unfortunately, all that can be seen is a very beautiful study of this Saint Michael Crushing the Demon (private collection). The large painting, today held in storage by the Objets d’Art de la Ville de Paris in Ivry, was part of a set, mostly unknown today, also containing two canvases by Abel de Pujol and Paul Delaroche. Commissioned for the chapel of the Boulard Hospice in Saint Mandé (which today is in Paris’ 12th arrondissement), these three paintings left their original site in 1990. The hospice now houses the SAMU social services and we would be interested in knowing why this beautiful building could not recover its former décor for the chapel. We will probably return to this subject sooner or later.

Is Boulogne-Billancourt too far for visitors to enjoy the exhibition ? We encourage our readers visiting Paris, whom we know to be inquisitive and interested in less familiar artists, to get on subway line n° 10, get off at the station Boulogne-Jean Jaurès and walk a few minutes to the Bibliothèque Marmottan. They will find the trip well worth their time. Please note that opening hours for the library are restricted (see below).

Didier Rykner, vendredi 2 mai 2008


[1] However, the other three paintings in the series have not been found.

[2] Why not think of presenting this ceiling, along with others often rolled up in the Louvre’s store rooms, in Lens ? This would be one way of making the new annex useful.

[3] France, as Minerva, Protecting the Arts, in 1819 ; The Triumph of French Painting : Apotheosis of Poussin, of Le Sueur and of Le Brun, in 1822 ; Parthenope’s Nymphs, Spiriting Away the Penates, Images of their Gods, Are Led by the Goddess of Fine Arts to the Banks of the Seine, in 1827.

[4] A third, belonging to the Musée Magnin, will be obviously be exhibited there.

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