Discovery of a Lost Painting by Léon Bénouville


1. Léon Bénouville (1821-1859)
The Departure of Protesilaus, 1851
Oil on Canvas - 297 x 229 cm
Hermes (Oise), City Hall
Photo : D. R.

25/01/12 - Discovery - Hermes (Oise). City Hall - Churches, but also city halls and other public places, hold some welcome surprises for us. In this case, thanks to the sharp eye of a young municipal councilman [1], an important painting by Léon Bénouville, which had disappeared practically since it was first produced was "discovered" in the town of Hermes, close to Beauvais in northern France. The work represents Protesilaus’ Departure, sent from Rome in 1851, a large canvas measuring 297 x 229 cm. The subject, not often treated in painting, is taken from Greek mythology : Protesilaus, a Thessalian hero, recently married to Laodamia, leaves to fight in the war against Troy where he is killed by Hector according to an oracle which predicted the death of the first Greek to step on Trojan soil. Inconsolable after the loss of her husband, Laodamia orders a wax figure in his likeness. Her father, unhappy to see her wallow in her sadness, throws the mannequin into the fire but the young woman follows and is burned alive.

As often happens in Léon Bénouville’s work, the composition for Protesilaus was carefully readied with many preparatory drawings. Marie-Madeleine Aubrun, the author of a monograph on the artist [2], had assembled a certain number of sheets on the subject. However, not having a very precise idea of the work, based only on descriptions made at the time it was presented, she had rejected some drawings which today round out the ensemble of preparatory studies for the painting.
Presented at the Salon of 1852 as n° 81, The Departure of Protesilaus was not very enthusiastically received and was criticized mostly for the very academic and conventional aspect of the hero and his companion in the foreground [3]. The painting was soon forgotten and eclipsed by the success of Saint Francis of Assissi Transported on his Deathbed to Saint Mary of the Angels, Blessing the City of Assissi exhibited the following year.


2. Léon Bénouville’s Signature
on The Departure of Protesilaus
Hermes (Oise), City Hall
Photo : D. R.

3. Léon Bénouville (1821-1859)
The Departure of Protesilaus, 1851, detail
Oil on Canvas - 297 x 229 cm
Hermes (Oise), City Hall
Photo : D. R.


4. Léon Bénouville (1821-1859)
The Departure of Protesilaus, 1851, detail
Oil on Canvas - 297 x 229 cm
Hermes (Oise), City Hall
Photo : D. R.

It is always interesting to determine how such an important painting ended up in a small town in the Oise region. The records of the auction following the death of Léon Bénouville in May 1859 mention a Protesilaus sold for 400F to a certain Moric (?). This person might well correspond to Théodore Gaitas, known as "Morin" (1807-1882), a manufacturer of passementerie in Saint-Just-des-Marais near Beauvais, and mayor of Hermes from 1870 to 1876, owner of the château Marguerite in this town. After his death, his widow, Aline Leclère, sold the château along with its furnishings to Louis-Jacques Legendre, a literary figure, poet and theater producer. He donated the painting by Bénouville to the community in 1886. Since then, Protesilaus’ Departure has been exhibited in a room at the Hermes city hall, amid general indifference !

The painting, which is in poor condition, will undergo a restoration. It has already been submitted for listing as a historical monument and should soon be reviewed by the Commission nationale in order to be officially listed.

Version française


Didier Rykner, jeudi 26 janvier 2012


Notes

[1] Mr. David Jehanne.

[2] Marie-Madeleine Aubrun, Léon Bénouville, Paris, 1981.

[3] The Goncourt brothers wrote : "We should not reproach Mr. Bénouville, as any other artist of 1810, for having placed the Apollo Belvedere in a scene which takes place during the Trojan war. The columns, the frescos, the domestic gods, even the oleanders, are those of a man who knows his local Greek "color". It is really something, but that is not all. Mr. Bénouville’s Protesilaus, starting with the left leg, the right arm held back, hesitant in the movement of the head, holds the same pose as all those academic figures on the point of leaving on a trip."



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