Jean Barbault (1718-1762). Le théâtre de la vie italienne.

Jean Barbault (1718-1762). Italian life as theatre.

Strasbourg, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 22 May to 22 August 2010

1. Jean Barbault (1718-1762)
Shepherd and Buffalo Leaving the Cave
Oil on canvas - 49 x 64.5 cm
Strasbourg, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Galerie Turquin

Jean Barbault remains relatively unknown despite a retrospective held in Beauvais (then Angers, Valence and Dijon) in 1974 and 1975. His fantasy figures, Italian women in local costume or resident artists at the Académie de France in Rome parading as Orientals are essentially the only images which come to mind of his work and, though given their pictorial quality and creativity, are usually considered as minor art.

However, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg last year purchased a magnificent painting (ill. 1), unpublished until then, from a Parisian dealer (see news item of 26/7/09) and now, the exhibition organized by Dominique Jacquot for the occasion should definitely reinstate the artist, placing him as deserved in French and Italian art of the mid-18th century. Barbault spent his whole career in Italy, where he died at the age of forty-three. He probably arrived there in 1747 and was admitted to the Académie de France in Rome in 1750 although he had not won the Grand Prix. In fact, although this is not generally known, students did not necessarily need to win the contest to enter. Some winners never made the trip while others, with better connections, settled in at the Palazzo Mancini, the Academy’s headquarters until the early 19th century.

2. Jean Barbault (1718-1762)
The Four Corners of the World, 1751
Oil on maroufled paper on canvas - 37.7 x 392 cm
Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie
Photo : Besançon, Musée / C. Choffet

3. Jean Barbault (1718-1762)
The Four Corners of the World, 1751 (detail)
Oil on maroufled paper on canvas - 37.7 x 392 cm
Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie
Photo : Didier Rykner

Identification of the painting recently acquired by Strasbourg, first established by the dealer, Hubert Duchemin, was then confirmed by Pierre Rosenberg and art historians who saw it although this was not an obvious one. There is no other instance of this subject in Barbault’s known works and only stylistic criteria pointed to his name. The current exhibition totally substantiates this fine attribution, not only by comparing acknowledged works but also by identifying evident formal correspondences. The key resides notably in a canvas of extravagant proportions held in Besançon (ill. 2). It represents a parade of resident artists dressed up for Carnival, as sometimes happened in the streets of Rome. This procession, with the subject The Four Corners of the World, was never executed and remained at the planning stage. The work, which is 37.7 cm high and almost 4 meters wide is proof of the artist’s extraordinary virtuosity and his love of matter and colour (ill. 3 and 4). When looking closely at the figures the observer will notice that the one at the extreme right, probably Barbault himself, is the same one as the shepherd in the Strasbourg painting, in a very similar attitude (ill. 5).

4. Jean Barbault (1718-1762)
The Four Corners of the World, 1751 (detail)
Oil on maroufled paper on canvas - 37.7 x 392 cm
Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie
Photo : Didier Rykner

5. 4. Jean Barbault (1718-1762)
The Four Corners of the World, 1751 (detail)
Oil on maroufled paper on canvas - 37.7 x 392 cm
Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie
Photo : Didier Rykner

The Besançon work alone would have ensured an enduring legacy for Barbault but it was never well known. One of the exhibition’s highlights, which assembles about half of the artist’s listed works, is to also present another work which recently resurfaced at auction and is of astounding quality, representing a Village Fair in Italy, a masterpiece equal to that of the same genre by Watteau and Fragonard. The canvas is signed and here again we see the same figure of the shepherd partly concealed by a horse. Its owner has refused permission to reproduce it in the press, but this does not really matter as it can easily be found on websites providing auction sales results.
The presentation of an extensive number of his Italian figures as well as others in costume (ill. 6) at the same time is the perfect chance for reevaluating the quality of the latter. The artist’s virtuosity, his fondness for colour and for shiny matter makes each of these small paintings a delicate and precious work. The fact that Goya was at one time thought to have produced one of the versions of The Venetian Woman (ill. 7) is proof of its high quality.

6. Jean Barbault (1718-1762)
Guardian of the Lord, 1748
Oil on canvas - 65 x 45 cm
Narbonne, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
Photo : Musées de Narbonne / J. Lepage

7. Jean Barbault (1718-1762)
The Venetian Woman, c. 1750
Oil on canvas - 24.5 x 18.8 cm
Paris, Private collection
Photo : All rights reserved

8. Ascribed to Jean Barbault (1718-1762)
The Death of Dido
Oil on canvas - 89.5 x 118 cm
Nancy, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

Besides these two canvases which have recently reappeared, mentioned above (the one acquired by Strasbourg and The Village Fair in Italy), the exhibition offers some new elements and stimulating suggestions which deserve to be mentioned here.
Nicolas Lesur is responsible for the attribution of two small studies with amorous subjects which were recently auctioned (cat. 60 and 61, private collection). Unfortunately, they are not on display here but are included in the catalogue, which lists all of Barbault’s known works. This is a very useful initiative providing a panoramic view of the artist’s oeuvre. At the very beginning of the exhibition, visitors will also discover a pair of oil on canvas works belonging to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nancy which had remained anonymous until now. One (ill. 8) has a preparatory study held in Chalon-sur-Saône. Based on rather convincing stylistic criteria, Dominique Jacquot suggests attributing The Death of Dido to Barbault, although he thinks that its pair, Dido and Aeneas Meet, does not seem to be by the same hand. The show also provides the chance to study the historical paintings, a small production but with a few known examples, including a large altarpiece at the church of San Giovanni e San Paolo in Rome (Saint Francis de Sales Places Saint Jeanne de Chantal under the Protection of Saint Vincent de Paul, cat. 64, not exhibited) and to admire Barbault’s paintings of ruins (ill. 9) inspired by Pannini and close to artists such as Servandoni (ill. 10) as seen in some pieces in the exhibition.

9. Jean Barbault (1718-1762)
Ruins with the statue of Esculape
Oil on canvas - 74.5 x 62 cm
Angers, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

10. Jean-Nicolas Servandoni (1695-1766)
Ancient Ruins with a Pyramid
Oil on canvas - 80 x 99.5 cm
Bayonne, Musée Bonnat
Photo : Didier Rykner

11. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre (1714-1789)
A Trip, called also Back from the Market
Oil on canvas - 48 x 39 cm
Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

This is in fact not just a retrospective. Barbault’s environment is also evoked through many paintings reflecting French art in Rome in the mid-18th century. Thus, visitors can enjoy studies by Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre (ill. 11), Jean-Baptiste Lallemand, Noël Hallé, Pierre Subleyras, Jean-Baptiste Deshays and others who found themselves in Italy at the same time as Barbault and whom he may have met. These juxtapositions bring out common elements reflecting the parallels in their artistic search.
Although many of these painters have already been treated in monographic studies, some works by Louis-Joseph Le Lorrain, who was close to Barbault as an artist, stand out particularly and deserve a more thorough discussion.

We sometimes see the pitfalls resulting from exhibitions put together in record time but the quality of this one, as well as the accompanying catalogue, along with its valuable contribution to art history is truly an exception and deserves to be commended all the more knowing that it took less than a year to organize.

Under the guidance of Dominique Jacquot, Jean Barbault (1718-1762). Le Théâtre de la vie italienne, Editions des Musées de Strasbourg, 2010, 208 p., 29 €. ISBN : 978-2-35125-081-5.

Didier Rykner, jeudi 17 juin 2010

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