Figures of reality. French Caravaggisti, Georges de La Tour, the Le Nain brothers…

Author : Jean-Pierre Cuzin

Hazan editions, along with all those who collaborated on this project, have offered us a very beautiful object [1]. This is not simply a modestly illustrated collection of articles, but a veritable book. Moreover, this compendium of Jean-Pierre Cuzin’s publications, some in cooperation with others, highlighting the French Caravaggisti or their influence, is accompanied by a large number of illustrations. Along with the paintings which have resurfaced since (either copies or originals), these images often enable us to discover canvases, with the most exact colours possible, which could not at times be reproduced correctly when first published by Jean-Pierre Cuzin due to problems of technique, insufficient knowledge or inaccessibility. We would thus like to underscore the care and attention which went into preparing this work [2], in stark contrast with the catalogue for the exhibition Vouet. Les années italiennes released by the same publishing house two years ago.

Two contributions appear before the actual work. In the first, with a very evocative title (“L’oeil et la plume” [The eye and the pen]), Michel Laclotte gives us a brief overview of the career [3] and most singular aspects of Jean-Pierre Cuzin, both inseparable. In the second, (“Relectures caravagesques” [Caravaggesque interpretations]), the “honoree” looks at his research studies and then at what we can still hope to discover or establish with the help of luck or accident [4]. Although Michel Laclotte of course observes (p. XIV) that Jean-Pierre Cuzin’s contributions to the study and knowledge of painting in the second half of the French 18th century would constitute “as rich” a volume as this one, we cannot help but recall the groundbreaking exhibition he organized with Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée in Rome in 1973 which permitted us to rediscover Valentin & les caravagesques français. It launched new studies and research to which, as clearly demonstrated in the present work, he contributed in a significant and often pioneering manner. In this light, and despite the fact that we do not necessarily share the way he sought to distinguish among the different Le Nain brothers, which he partly renounces today [5], we are indebted to him, as a result of this attempt, for the “creation” of the Maître des Jeux and a coherent oeuvre.

The texts have been assembled and organized into four large sections, each offering an introduction by Jean-Pierre Cuzin himself. We thus move from the general (International Caravaggism and France) to the heart of his research on the subject (the French Caravaggisti) dominated almost naturally by Valentin and Vouet, then focus on two particular cases, though it might be tempting to say two problems : Georges de La Tour et the Le Nain brothers. One of the book’s other assets is that it does not simply reproduce the contributions, updating some of the information, bringing to light notes and references. The author also adds a comment for each article and remarks on subsequent reinterpretations and theories. He readily admits his mistakes, his “reticence” at identifying Ribera as the Master of the Judgement of Solomon, a step taken convincingly by Gianni Papi, or at times his overly heated reactions notably when reviewing publications infringing on his territory [6]. This is not the place or time to mention our minute differences as concerns some of his theories but insist rather on the pleasure and wealth of knowledge provided by this Figures de la réalité to the reader, whether he be, like us, an amateur or a specialist of Caravaggesque painting.

Attributed to the Master of Cortèges
Washing of the Feet
Oil on canvas - 167 x 232 cm
Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

The book ends with the article which Jean-Pierre Cuzin wrote in 2009 on an artist, the Master of Cortèges, who produced a Crowning of Thorns acquired by the Louvre a few years earlier. We have therefore chosen [7] to reproduce a painting [8] (ill.) whose illustration is missing from this demonstration : a Washing of the Feet held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon with a previous attribution, today unacceptable, to Bon Boullogne [9], and which Cuzin suggests adding “with some hesitation” to this artist’s oeuvre.

Jean-Pierre Cuzin, Figures de la rélaité. Caravagesques français, Georges de La Tour, les frères Le Nain…, 2010, Hazan, 363 p., 55€. ISBN : 9782754104654.

Moana Weil-Curiel, mercredi 20 octobre 2010


[1] Dominique Cordellier, Michel Laclotte, Antoinette Lenormand-Romain, Dimitri Salmon and Christian Volle…

[2] We found only one obvious, and recent, typo which escaped Dominique Jacquot’s careful proofreading : p. XX, “décripteurs” which seems hesitant, when in fact Jean-Pierre Cuzin writes unequivocally either “décrypteurs” or “descripteurs”.

[3] Michel Laclotte, whom he met then at the INHA, clearly evokes the upsetting nature of Jean-Pierre Cuzin’s resignation as head of the Département des Peintures at the Musée du Louvre in 2003 for moral reasons, “it comes at a price.” With his usual reservation, Cuzin touches upon this in the first page of his own contribution, in three brief lines when he says that his publications “reflect the work of a museum curator”, a profession which was “previously so exalting”.

[4] It would seem clear that the ignorance, even discriminatory rejection, which lasted longer here than in neighboring countries, of French Caravaggisti is responsible for the many problems, as a positive term, and enigmas which we may never be able to solve. In fact, as underscored by Jean-Pierre Cuzin in his introductory statement “the notion of Caravaggism in French painting remains vague though it is suggestive”.

[5] Thus p. XX : “Following our attempts, after those of others, to push open the doors, we wonder if it would not be better, while still searching ardently to identify the three brushes, to respect the anonymity demanded by the Le Nain signatures”. A bit further he writes about them, “the inextricable pictorial brotherhood”.

[6] Referring to his review of M. Mojana’s work on Valentin, he states (here, on p. 101) : “the tone of the article is a bit acrimonious, which is not good : art historians do not like having others encroach on their territory, when in fact the domain of art belongs to everyone”. But we are not alone in thinking that the book does not do justice or pay tribute as due to this very great painter, something which the author of this remark and these texts would have undoubtedly known how to do.

[7] We thank Dominique Jacquot for this suggestion.

[8] We are awaiting a colour photo of bigger size from the Musée de Dijon which will be posted as soon as it arrives.

[9] It was this attribution which once led Antoine Schnapper to take a closer look at it, then conclude that it might be by the “same [anonymous] artist” who had painted The Keys Are Handed to Saint Peter residing in the church of Pommard, and for which we have only a very poor quality reproduction which tends to underscore its differences rather than its analogies.

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