Daniel Sarrabat (1666-1748)

Daniel Sarrabat (1666-1748), l’éclat retrouvé

Bourg-en-Bresse, Monastère royal de Brou, from 15 October 2011 to 29 January 2012.

1. View of the Sarrabat exhibition at the Monastère de Brou
From left to right : The Wedding at Canaa,
Adoration of the Shepherds, Saint Jacques,
The Descent from the Cross
Photo : Didier Rykner

A native of Lyon, who studied under Bon Boullogne and received the Grand Prix of the Académie Royale in France, Daniel Sarrabat was practically unknown before this retrospective in Bourg-en-Bresse, despite a very active career in Lyon and its surroundings. We should commend the Monastère de Brou for its courageous initiative in organizing such an exhibition (ill. 1), which speaks highly of the museum as it allows us to rediscover an artist. None of it could have happened without the help of François Marandet, an art historian specialized in this period and gifted with a particularly keen eye. Thanks to him, the career of this artist has been revitalized after identifying a great number of works : almost half of the paintings presented here were unpublished until now, at least under Sarrabat’s name. After Cretey (see article), another Lyon painter now emerges from the shadows perhaps enabling to establish attributions for drawings and paintings done by him but for the moment still anonymous or hidden under a different name.

A visit to the exhibition confirms the curator’s choices in offering a logical and realistic reconstitution of the artist’s career. However, while the visual demonstration is indeed convincing, the texts in the catalogue fall short. Nothing is of course more difficult than to explain an attribution which appears self-evident. Basing an attribution strictly on similar or related approaches in style in order to arrive at a deduction is not always enough. This might simply correspond to a process found in several contemporaries, reflecting a shared culture. Using parallels as a method can lead one to attribute works to a painter by comparing them to other pieces which were theoretically acknowledged previously, leaving us without sound proof except by analogy.
Generally speaking, in fact, and this does not apply only in the case of this exhibition, it would be more exact to use the term "attributed to" more frequently. This means that, according to the author, and in all likelihood, the work was painted by the artist, but that this remains hypothetical, to be discussed and validated by other art historians, given the lack of absolute proof. When this is not made explicit on a sign, visitors are lead to think that this is a fact but it is actually misleading.
At the very start of the exhibition, for example, a painting which serves as a point of comparison (Building the Tower of Babel, Chaumont Musée d’Art et d’Histoire) is exhibited as being by Claude Verdot. As the attribution to this totally unknown artist cannot be ascertained based on the style, it should rely on documents or other irrefutable demonstration. And yet, here, it is not the case. Claiming that the size of the painting corresponds to those presented at the Grand Prix de l’Académie (predecessor to the Prix de Rome), that the subject appeared at the 1690 competition, that the work shows "some awkwardness in the execution and the slightly schoolish character betray the work of a young painter" and that "certain formulas used by Sarrabat" can be found there, the art historian concludes that it might be by another one of Bon Boullogne’s students, and since Claude Verdot (1666-1733) was in his workshop, the painting is, ipso facto, by his hand... Unfortunately, the reasoning behind this conclusion is a little shaky. This is a legitimate theory, but the sign next to Claude Verdot’s name should have read "attributed to".

2. Daniel Sarrabat (1666-1748)
The Wedding at Canaa
Oil on canvas - 86.5 x 116.5 cm
Paris, Private Collection
Photo : All Rights Reserved

We have no hesitation in offering this criticism since we find the exhibition very convincing otherwise, as we have already said. The works assembled by François Marandet do indeed appear to have been produced by the same artist which, given the number of acknowledged paintings, would seem to be Daniel Sarrabat.
One or two of the works however, in our opinion, are debatable, as they seem much better than the others. Sarrabat comes through as an honorable representative of the Académie (he was only approved or "agréé", since he never presented a reception piece), but without any true originality. His paintings are interesting but a bit stiff, and the compositions are often slightly awkward.
For this reason, The Wedding at Cana (ill. 2), a painting from a private collection sold at auction under the name of Bon Boullogne and now restituted to Sarrabat, stands out a bit. If it is really by him, this would be his masterpiece. François Marandet explains that the difference in quality comes from its excellent condition as opposed to all the others, an acceptable argument. The comparison with the cycle of six paintings produced for the church of Saint Marie Madeleine in Thoissey, which are acknowledged in documents, is only partly convincing. The attribution of the Adoration of the Shepherds, also in a private collection, and of an equally high quality is easier to understand although it is not one hundred per cent sure either.

3. Daniel Sarrabat (1666-1748)
Noah, His Family and the Animals Leaving the Ark, 1688
Oil on canvas - 100 x 130 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Lyon MBA/A. Basset

4. Daniel Sarrabat (1666-1748)
Noah, His Family and the Animals Leaving the Ark, 1688
Black chalk - 39 x 52 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Lyon MBA/A. Basset

5. Daniel Sarrabat (1666-1748)
The Descent from the Cross, 1705
Oil on canvas - 330 x 220 cm
Pélussin, église Saint-Jean-Baptiste
Photo : City of Lyon

The exhibition begins with a work by Bon Boullogne demonstrating everything he passed on to Sarrabat and the painting with which the latter won the Grand Prix in 1688 (ill. 3). A preparatory drawing for it was identified, also in Lyon, by François Marandet (ill. 4). The visit continues in more or less chronological order as the artist’s manner did not really change very much over the years. Sarrabat continued to paint in the style of Le Brun’s followers, with little innovation, well into the 18th century.
Two altarpieces, identified by François Marandet, are presented here, including a Descent from the Cross (ill. 5), strongly influenced by Le Brun’s at the Museum in Rennes. The Thoissey cycle mentioned above is assembled in the same room with dimmed lighting to recreate the setting in a chapel.
This undoubtedly represents the artist’s highpoint although the quality of the works is not the same throughout. The Blessing the Unction at Bethany and especially The Holy Women at the Tomb (ill. 6) are quite remarkable, whereas Noli Me Tangere (ill. 7) reveals two rather awkward figures which seem to float around in the landscape. A building in Lyon, the Hôtel de l’Europe, formerly the Hôtel de Senozan, which now belongs to the Groupama company, still holds an important décor, with no less than three ceilings painted by Sarrabat. Several paintings from the Hercules Salon there were brought to Bourg. The visit ends with three canvases from the Hôtel-Dieu in Lyon (ill. 8). They also raise the question of this building’s future. It is currently undergoing a refurbishment and it is not sure that the works will be able to return to their original home. On temporary deposit in Bourg, it would be a shame if they were to remain there permanently [1]

7. Daniel Sarrabat (1666-1748)
Noli me tangere, 1706
Oil on canvas - 140 x 190 cm
Thoissey, Church Sainte-Marie-Madeleine
Photo : All rights reserved

8. Daniel Sarrabat (1666-1748)
Come To Me, All You Who Are Weary and
Burdened, and I Will Give You Rest
, 1731
Oil on canvas - 149 x 167 cm
Lyon, Hôtel-Dieu
Photo : Didier Rykner

In the preface, Pierre Rosenberg explains that it will be difficult to have a clear picture of French painting at the turn of the 18th century (the "painters[...]were sacrified, caught in the middle between, on the one hand Charles Le Brun and Pierre Mignard [...] and, on the other, the generation of 1699") until many more artists, such as Sarrabat are studied carefully. Placed in this context, the exhibition in Bourg definitely stands out as a pioneer. The catalogue will remain as a foundation stone in reconstituting a period of French art which is still largely unknown despite, or perhaps because of, the staggering predominance of the art at the Court of Versailles.

Curator : François Marandet.

François Marandet, Daniel Sarrabat (1666-1748), ICA Editions d’Art/Monastère royal de Brou, 2011, 125pp., 22€. ISBN : 9782916373478.

Visitor information : Monastère royal de Brou, 63 boulevard de Brou 01000 Bourg-en-Bresse. Tel : +33(0)3 27 22 57 20. Open every day from 9 to 12 and from 2 to 5. Rates : 7€ (7.50€ starting 2 January 2012).

Version française

Didier Rykner, vendredi 11 novembre 2011


[1] We are planning an article soon on the Hôtel-Dieu in Lyon.

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