François-Xavier Fabre


François-Xavier Fabre. Painter and Collector Montpellier, Musée Fabre, 14 November 2007 through 24 February 2008. Then Torino, Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, 11 March through 1st June 2008.

Some art historians of Neoclassicism use the expression “the three G’s” in designating David’s leading students : Girodet, Gros and Gérard to whom they at times add a fourth, Guérin, although he belonged to Regnault’s workshop. An “F” should be added to the list of all these artists who are still awaiting, except Girodet, a retrospective. The exhibition devoted to François-Xavier Fabre in a well deserved tribute by the museum that holds his name and that he founded in fact reveals an artist with a totally different standing than the one he enjoys today. Even Michel Hilaire, director of the museum and co-commissioner of the exhibition, admits that he was surprised to realize how the painter grew in stature once his work had been assembled for the show.

Montpellier, one must admit, has worked well. No less than 104 paintings and 130 drawings, from museums around the world as well as private collections, retrace all of Fabre’s career with very few major pieces missing. The Musée Fabre exhibition site (ill. 1) lends itself perfectly to a show of old art. It can be easily adapted to create different sections, organizing actual rooms, thus avoiding the monotony of walls that are too long as often happens in modern museums. Given the number of works, the paintings and drawings are displayed in two separate presentations. The latter appear in the spot normally devoted to the Fabre paintings in the permanent hang.

2. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
Nabuchodonosor Has Zedekiah’s Children Killed before
his Eyes
, 1787
Oil on canvas - 125 x 158 cm
Paris, Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts
Photo : Ensba

3. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
Nabuchodonosor Has Zedekiah’s Children Killed before
his Eyes
(détail)
Oil on canvas - 125 x 158 cm
Paris, Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts
Photo : D. Rykner


4. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
Nabuchodonosor Has Zedekiah’s Children Killed before
his Eyes
(détail)
Oil on canvas - 125 x 158 cm
Paris, Ecole nationale supérieure des
beaux-arts
Photo : D. Rykner

Each of the works in the exhibition stands out but, more important still, each section contains one or more masterpieces. And yet it is not the universally high level of this bounty that strikes the museum goer. Girodet, Gros and even Guérin are known for a specific major piece, from The Flood to The Return of Marcus Curtius, that helped to write art history at the beginning of the XIXth century. Fabre was not as lucky and it is no doubt easy to understand why. In the words of Michel Hilaire, the artist is in the details, and it takes time to appreciate them. This is obvious already in the first gallery with Fabre’s early works when he was still a student of David at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. A first glance at his Prix de Rome (ill. 2), which he won after three attempts, might find it boring, an academic exercise that is usually disdained by the untrained eye. But when lingering a bit longer one can only admire, beyond a rather average composition, the superior talent of the young artist. All of Fabre’s future art is already present, in the refined coloring where mauve often appears, in the velvety quality of the matter and in the intelligence of the attitudes (ill. 3 and 4).

5. François-Xavier
Fabre (1766-1837)
Saint Sébastian, 1789
Oil on canvas - 196 x 147 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : Frédéric Jaulmes / Musée Fabre,
Montpellier Agglomération

6. François-Xavier
Fabre (1766-1837)
Saul’s Vision, 1803
Oil on canvas - 151 x 214 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : Frédéric Jaulmes / Musée Fabre,
Montpellier Agglomération


The same characteristics are found in the copy he made of his master’s Belisarius signed by David as in the one Girodet did of The Oath of the Horaces. The student is worthy of the master and demonstrates that he was one of his most conscientious students. This awareness is perhaps what kept him from becoming more famous. Fabre was a model student, as seen in the following room displaying the works he sent back to Paris while in Rome (ill. 5). He applied himself by scrupulously respecting the rules that Girodet did not hesitate to transgress. Unlike the latter, or even Gros, Fabre is rarely tempted by Romanticism. The artist belongs fully to his period, in an unequivocal manner. He looks towards the past, to XVIIth C. Italian painting (especially the Bolognese school) and particulary French painting, and thus does not foreshadow a new movement. In our day, painters without a following are not particularly well-loved. Fabre shows that one can be an excellent artist without being a forerunner of Impressionism or without even having understood or liked Romanticism. This misunderstanding of the changes in the art of his time was perhaps one of the reasons why he progressively gave up painting to devote himself fully to his second passion, collecting. Whatever the answer, this look back to the masters in no way impeded him from being inspired.

7. François-Xavier
Fabre (1766-1837)
The Holy Family, 1801
Oil on canvas - 224 x 160 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : Frédéric Jaulmes / Musée Fabre, Montpellier Agglomération

One of the rooms displays the important historical paintings as well as some of the corresponding preliminary studies. Among these works, we have recently spoken (see News of 18/12/07) of the grand Ulysses and Neoptelemus Taking Hercules’ Arrows from Philoctetes, wisely deposited by the Louvre and which is seen here again for the first time, as well as the recently acquired preliminary study. The Bolognese influence is particularly evident in Susanna and the Elders from the Salon de 1791 (Montpellier), whereas the exceptional Saul’s Vision (ill. 6), also held by the Musée Fabre, shows how the artist found his inspiration in what is termed today as the Parisian “Atticism” of the 1640’s. The figures and the composition style recall Jacques Stella or Laurent de La Hyre. As Michel Hilaire points out, the group of dead bodies in the foreground evokes The Death of Bethel’s Children by the second (Arras). Fabre’s subtle colors, which we mentioned earlier, are striking in this canvas. The Holy Family (ill. 7) painted two years earlier is also a manifesto of this reworking of XVIIth century French Classicism. Religious paintings were still rare at the beginning of the XIXth century after the revolutionary upheaval. Fabre produced some works in this domain that can be seen in another gallery a bit further on. Several preliminary studies are included but these were not executed into final works. The very beautiful Descent from the Cross (ill. 8) is especially striking.

8. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
Descent from the Cross, c. 1809
Oil on canvas - 44 x 34 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : D. Rykner

8. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
Portrait of Vittorio Alfieri, 1797
Oil on canvas - 105 x 83 cm
Asti, Fondazione Centro Studi Alfieriani
Photo : D. Rykner


An exhibition review should in no way be a summarized biography. Nevertheless, let us briefly recall the artist’s itinerary, fundamental in grasping his art. After his stay at the Académie de France in Rome, the young man was forced to flee the anti-French insurrection that broke out in 1793, as did many of his fellow students. He stopped off in Florence where he settled after becoming friends with a couple who were also his patrons and who played an important role in his life : the poet Vittorio Alfieri and his wife Countess Louise d’Albany. Upon her death in 1824, he inherited a part of her collection. Several of his works thus joined those he had kept and were then donated to Montpellier. One of the major revelations of the exhibition is the extraordinary portrait of Alfieri held by the museum in Asti (ill. 8). Unlike his usual choice of pastel tones in subtle transitions, he opts here for a bright red which contrasts with the black suit. The directness of the colors and the thoughtful expression of the poet render the portrait hard to forget. A veritable visual shock which is poorly restituted in reproductions and that on its sole merit bestows the painter his place in the pantheon of great portrait artists. The painting opposite it echoes the effect in a more subdued but equally attractive manner, making the other Davidian portraits in this section, although highly deserving, a bit dull in comparison.

9. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
The Judgement of Paris, 1808
Huile sur toile - 118 x 166.5 cm
Richmond, The Virginia Museum of Art
Photo : Katherine Wetzel, Virginia Museum of Art

10. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
Portrait of the général Clarke, 1810
Oil on canvas - 217 x 144 cm
Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : D. Rykner


Italy at this time welcomed, besides the English on their Grand Tour, all of the European aristocracy who constituted a choice clientele for Fabre, one of the most popular portraitists in the peninsula. His works can be found in many European countries, in Poland, Lithuania and even all the way to Finland. The organizers are to be commended for having gone so far to bring together such admirable works as the Portrait of Father Pawel Ksaveri Brzostowski from Warsaw, painted in the vein of Louis Gauffier and the Portrait of Countess Stotnicka, born Elizabeth Laskiewicz with a beautiful landscape in the background.
Now “exiled” in Italy, Fabre ran the risk of being forgotten in France although he participated modestly in some of the Salons. In 1808, he presented The Judgement of Paris (Richmond) (ill. 9), a unique painting reflecting the recent legacy from Stella and La Hyre, and admired by David himself who was happy to see that one of his favourite pupils was not lost despite the fact that he lived outside France. In 1810, with the full-length Portrait of General Clarke de Feltre (ill. 10), Fabre proved that he could compete with the Empire’s best painters. That same year, the portrait of the general’s wife surrounded by their children (ill. 11) completed the family gallery. On the left one can see their son whose masterpiece portrait from a few years earlier was recently acquired by the musée Fabre (see News of 18/12/07).

11. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
Portrait of Mrs Clarke with her Four Children, 1810
Oil on canvas - 227 x 276 cm
Paris, Musée Marmottan
Photo : Musée Marmottan - Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library

As we mentioned earlier, Fabre remained practically insensitive to Romanticism. Nonetheless, every once in a while some paintings suggest a feeling of melancholy that can be attributed to Romantic aesthetics. This is the case for instance in two small portraits that hang side by side (New York, Richard L. Feigen) : the first is a posthumous one of the Marquise Fanny Grimaldi, draped in a flowing white robe. Her feet barely touch the floor as if she were an apparition. In the other, her husband bends pensively over a tombstone in a “staging” frequently found in European painting of the time [1]. The beautiful Portrait of the Young Iranaeus Cleophas, from the Ciurlionis de Kaunas Museum evokes Girodet [2], the same influence found in the Portrait of Prince Michel-Cléophas Oginski in Vilnius.

12. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
A View of Florence from the Banks of the Arno, 1812
Oil on canvas - 96 x 135 cm
Edinburgh, The National Gallery of Scotland
Photo : National Gallery of Scotland

A whole room is devoted to landscapes. Fabre’s models, once again, can be traced directly back to the XVIIth century, the foremost of these being Gaspard Dughet, from whom he owned several works which he copied. The small Landscape with a Praying Monk, acquired by the musée Fabre in 1995, bears the distinct mark of Dughet. The Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy also belonging to Montpellier evokes, in its smooth finish, more the work of Dutch painters in Rome such as Cornelis van Poelenburgh, whereas the Two Men Tearing Up a Tree Trunk from a French private collection and A View of the Surrounding Countryside outside Florence (Montauban, Musée Ingres) unmistakably borrow from Poussin and seem almost pastiches. In these landscapes, Fabre blends his two passions closely, painting and the collection from which he derives his inspiration. With A View of Florence from the Banks of the Arno (ill. 12), he produces on the other hand an original work while staying in the domain of the historical landscape. Here again, one needs to take the time to admire his rich palette and delicate touch, especially remarkable in the rendering of the mountains in the background.

13. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
Promethee, c. 1790
Pen - 19.5 x 26.1 cm
Venice, Accademia
Photo : D. Rykner

14. François-Xavier The Return of Odysseus, 1799
Pen and China ink wash - 21.2 x 30.1 cm
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
Photo : D. Rykner


An excellent painter, Fabre was also a great draughtsman. He handles a pen with remarkable dexterity, either by itself to quickly set the composition that he is preparing (ill. 13), or as is more often the case with the help of wash (ill. 14) [3] sometimes highlighted with white, producing works of pictorial quality (ill. 15). When he uses only crayon, he multiplies the strokes, giving the impression when seen close up of an entangled snarl which suddenly takes shape as soon as the viewer steps back. Let us point out in passing the recent acquisition in 2006 [4] by the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Genève, of a work on paper using this technique (ill. 16), and a preparation for The Death of Socrates, a painting which was considered lost for a long time which today hangs in this Swiss museum. Both are included in the exhibition in Montpellier.

15. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
John the Baptist Preaching,
1790-1792
Pen and sepia wash, heightened with white

- 51.5 x 27.5 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : Frédéric Jaulmes / Musée Fabre, Montpellier Agglomération

16. François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837)
The Death of Socrates
Pencil - 20 x 28.2 cm
Geneva, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
Photo : D. Rykner


This lengthy overview is in no way exhaustive and does not convey the wealth of a retrospective which we highly recommend. We look forward to the catalogue which should be available in early February but in the meantime, L’Objet d’Art [5] devotes a special issue to the artist whom we hope we will have the chance to highlight here in the future should the Musée Fabre make any further acquisitions.

As a reminder, a colloquium Fabre is being held in Montpellier 31st January and 1st February 2008.

Visitor Information : Montpellier, Musée Fabre, 39, boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, 34000 Montpellier. Phone : + 33 (0)4 67 14 83 00. Open Tuesday-Thursday-Friday 10.00 - 18.00, Wednesday 13.00 - 21.00, Saturday 11.00 - 18.00. Admission : 9 €, 8 € and 7 €.

Website of the Musée Fabre


Didier Rykner, vendredi 18 janvier 2008


Notes

[1] Comparable, for example, to Lieutenant Richard Mansergh St. George by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, Dublin, recently shown at the Portraits publics, portraits privés exhibition at the Grand Palais.

[2] As pointed out by Michel de Piles in the aforementioned News item.

[3] The drawing of The Return of Ulysses that we illustrate here is a preliminary study for the painting recently acquired by Montpellier (see News of 18/12/07 quoted several times already).

[4] From Patrice Salet, Vernaison market in Saint-Ouen.

[5] François-Xavier Fabre peintre et collectionneur, special issue of L’Objet d’Art n° 2, 2000. The authors are Laure Pellicer and Michel Hilaire, the commissioners of the exhibition.



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