Exhibition Poussin et Moïse at the Mobilier National : A Cartoon for La Manne Recovered

22/5/12 - Exhibition - Paris, Mobilier National - After Rome and Bordeaux (see article in French), it is now Paris’ turn to welcome the tapestry series The Story of Moses after eight paintings by Poussin and two by Le Brun, now on display to the public at the Galerie des Gobelins. The visit establishes a dialogue among the preparatory drawings, the paintings - those available for loan -, the cartoons - those which were found - and the tapestries, clearly explaining the whole creative process of which three weavings were produced before the 1680’s.

1. François Bonnemer (1638-1889),
The Manna
Painted Cartoon before restoration
Paris, Mobilier National,
Photo : M.Lombard/Arcanes

2. François Bonnemer (1638-1889),
The Manna
Painted Cartoon after restoration
Paris, Mobilier National,
Photo : Didier Rykner

We thus move from Poussin’s rhetorical painting in small formats conducive to meditation, to the theatrical disposition of the tapestries which, through the addition of columns and draperies in certain compositions, strive for scenic amplitude and decorative effect. The lighting in the rooms is particularly well done and enhances perfectly the gold and silver threads which have survived the passing of time. Visitors will discover other surprises, particularly works which were not on view in Bordeaux (and in fact are not included in the unique catalogue for all three exhibitions) : a Lubin Gaugin from a Parisian private collection illustrating Moses Laid down on the Water and a red chalk by Le Brun, from another private collection, preparatory for the figure of Moses in The Burning Bush ; loans from the Louvre which will be renewed in September ; finally, but above all, a cartoon after Poussin which was recently found in the Mobilier national collections (ill. 1 and 2) : while the artist is practically unknown, François Bonnemer, the painting it illustrates is famous, The Manna (ill. 3).

These cartoons were known as they were documented in the inventories for the Gobelins and the Louvre, to where they were transferred before being misplaced while in storage at the Mobilier National. This is because most of the 17th century cartoons are cut in strips, making it more difficult to preserve over the centuries. After the Mobilier National undertook a thorough examination of hundreds of strips which were rolled up in storage in order to put them on cylinders for better conservation, the cartoon for The Manna resurfaced in 2011 and was restored for the Parisian exhibition.

3. Poussin Nicolas (1594-1665)
The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert, 1639
Oil on Canvas - 149 x 200 cm.
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP

4. Manufacture des Gobelins, Studio of Jean Jans fils,
after Nicolas Poussin
The Manna in the Desert, weaved (high warp) in 1685
Wool and Silk Heightened with Gold - 337 x 660 cm
Paris, Mobilier National
Photo : L. Perquis/Mobilier National

Who was behind the weaving of The Story of Moses (ill. 4) after dispersed paintings by Poussin ? No doubt the idea came from Chantelou in 1665, but it materialized much later with Le Brun who completed the series. Although Maurice Fenaille [1] asserts that the tapestries were produced under the supervision of Louvois, Jean Vittet proves clearly, in the exhibition catalogue, that the weaving had already started under Colbert, before Louvois joined the Surintendance.
Generally, there were two sets of cartoons, one for the high warp and one for the low warp but The Story of Moses was produced from only one set, the low warp, thus explaining the reversed image compared to the Poussin original. Three tapestries were executed, each made up of ten pieces, eight after Poussin [2], for which visitors can admire the cartoons of The Adoration of the Golden Calf and of The Manna at the exhibition, and two after Le Brun : The Burning Bush and The Brass Serpent ; not all of the cartoons for these tapestries have been preserved but their authors have been identified thanks to the Inventaire général des ouvrages de peinture, among which the best known are Antoine Paillet and Henri Testelin. In the case of François Bonnemer, he painted the cartoons for The Manna and Moses Changing Aaron’s Rod into a Serpent, as well as The Brass Serpent after Le Brun.
Jean Vittet points out that the production of this tapestry series remains in fact rather mysterious : not only do we not know where it was supposed to go, but also the choice of these eight Poussin paintings rather than others he did representing the life of Moses is strange given the fact that some were in private collections ; but the common link seems to be Colbert [3]. In any case, it reflects the wish to pay tribute to the glory of Poussin, rivaling Italian and North European art with a prestigious French manifestation. This Story of Moses was to replace, in a way, that of Jules Romain designed by him in 1540 for the Brussels workshops.

5. Studio of Charles Le Brun (1619-1690)
Saint Louis Praying
Oil on Canvas
Paris, Mobilier National
Photo : Didier Rykner

We would like to conclude this news item by mentioning a painting which the journalists attending the private showing prior to the official inauguration saw before it was withdrawn as it did not fit in coherently with the rest of the exhibition. We are referring to Saint Louis Praying (ill. 5) held by the Mobilier National but whose origins are not really known. In poor condition, it has undergone a very good restoration recovering all of its beauty. This is a work after Le Brun, no doubt from his studio, and of fine quality. The original resides in a Parisian private collection. The existence of this work once again shows us the hidden wealth of the holdings at the Mobilier National which go far beyond the Gobelins tapestries. The conservation, restoration and study of these collections will soon fall under the responsibility of Christiane Naffah-Bayle.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges and Didier Rykner, lundi 28 mai 2012


[1] Maurice Fenaille, Etat général des tapisseries de la Manufacture des Gobelins depuis son origine jusqu’à nos jours, 1600-1900, 6 vol., Paris Hachette, 1903-1923.

[2] Moses Exposed on the Waters, Moses Saved from the Waters, Moses as a Child Crushing Pharaoh’s Crown, Moses Changing Aaron’s Rod into a Serpent, The Crossing of the Red Sea, The Manna in the Desert, The Striking of the Rock, The Adoration of the Golden Calf.

[3] Collectors more or less with ties to Colbert owned these paintings, thus confirming Jean Vittet’s theory. Moses Exposed on the Waters (1654) belonged to Jacques Stella’s niece (today at the Ashmolean Museum), The Striking of the Rock (1633-1635) belonged to the Marquis de Seignelay, Colbert’s son, The Adoration of the Golden Calf and The Crossing of the Red Sea (1633-1634) painted for Amedeo dal Pozzo and which belonged for a while to the Chevalier de Lorraine then to Seignelay (National Gallery in London and National Gallery Melbourne).

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