Laurent Pécheux. A French Painter in the Italian Enlightenment

Dole, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 27 June to 30 September 2012.
Chambéry, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 24 October 2012 to 20 January 2013.

1. Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821)
Hercules Confides Deianira
to the Centaur Nessus
, 1760
Grey Wash, Black Chalk, Chalk - 23.6 x 19 cm
France, Private Collection
Photo : D. R.

An artist from Lyon who spent most of his career in Italy, first Rome then Turin where he became official painter to the King of Piemonte-Sardegna, Laurent Pécheux is however not very well known outside of the restricted circle of art historians. The first retrospective highlighting his oeuvre, organized by the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dole, which will then travel to Chambéry, now reveals a first rate artist, a pioneer of European Neo-Classicism though he maintained, in certain works, a Baroque spirit or even, if we adopt the term now used for some paintings corresponding to the second half of the 19th century, "Neo-Baroque".

The show is curated by Sylvain Laveissière, chief curator for the Département des peintures at the Musée du Louvre. In passing, we must say we find it remarkable that the establishment behind this exhibition is a (relatively) small museum in the provinces. Not long ago, Bourg-en-Bresse revealed Daniel Sarrabat (a less talented artist, true), Lille featured Boilly, Lyon exhibited Cretey, Montpellier presented Raoux (see article in French) and Strasbourg Jean Barbault... Soon, this last city will stage a show on Loutherbourg and Rouen will organize an exhibition on Nicolas Colombel. Fortunately, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (with for example, Gérôme) continues to present monographs highlighting French painters. Nevertheless, artists before the mid-19th century are increasingly being studied outside of the French capital.
In order to appear in these shows however, they cannot have been born in Paris as is the case for Laurent Pécheux who was a native of Lyon. Dole is notheless a pertinent choice as he left an important cycle of paintings there, still residing at the Collegiale church and recently restored (see news item of 20/06/09).

Little is known about Pécheux’s training, except that at about the age of 16 he spent a year in Charles Natoire’s studio, before returning to Lyon where, in his own words, he "frequented all the best artists in the country" without naming a single one. The whereabouts of the only painting remaining from this period, a Jupiter and Semele which recalls, as noted by Sylvain Laveissière, Cretey’s manner are not known.
Pécheux reached his full potential by quickly becoming one of the most familiar painters in the company of Mengs (whom he followed more as a disciple than a student) and of Pompeo Batoni to whom he was close, both of these artists being of course precursors to Neo-Classicism. At the time, Charles Natoire, his first master, headed the Académie de France in Rome, then housed at the Palazzo Mancini on the Corso.

2. Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821)
The Abduction of Helen, 1760
Oil on Canvas - 65 x 85 cm
Paris, Private Collection
Photo : D. R.

In the second half of the 18th century, the Eternal City attracted a great number of foreign nobles, notably British, who undertook the Grand Tour. Pompeo Batoni was one of the most sought-after artists to paint their portraits or execute historical compositions. Pécheux, on two occasions, produced companion pieces for Batoni works, attesting to the quality of his work and the notoriety he had achieved. One of these commissions, for a Frenchman, the bailiff de Breteuil, was Hercules Confides Deianira to the Centaur Nessus to Cross the Evenos River [1], held at the Galleria Sabauda in Turin which unfortunately was not lent out here. There are, however, several preparatory drawings (ill. 1).
The first two known paintings by Pécheux with Antiquity subjects are Regulus Leaving his Family to Return to Carthage and Coriolanus Rejected by his Family were painted for a Scotsman, Lord Hope, a commission obtained thanks to the architect Robert Adam. They are now lost but the first room in the exhibition shows drawn studies and engravings [2]. As of the period 1757-1761, these works show a mastery of composition, the frieze, already Neo-Classic, comparable to that painted for example by Gavin Hamilton.
Two other paintings, in small or medium-sized format, attest to the artist’s ease with this antique manner. One of them, representing The Abduction of Helen (ill. 2) reveals a knowledge of Guido Reni (as did already Hercules and Deianira). We would point out that it was rediscovered thanks to the advertisement published by the Dole museum on our French site, as its owner was thus able to contact the museum [3].

3. Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821)
Saint Ursula, Blessed Angela and Saint Augustin
Giving the Order to a Nun
, 1771
Black Pencil, Grey Wash and Watercolor - 34 x 23.4 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D. R.

4. The Laurent Pécheux paintings
hanging in the Collégiale church in Dole
Photo : Didier Rykner

The visit is both thematic and chronological. After seeing Pécheux’s beginnings in Rome with the antique genre, the second room studies religious painting in his early career. We would like to mention that a small painting on copper belonging to the Fondazione Roma from the Fabrizio Lemme collection [4], although of very fine quality, cannot be by Laurent Pécheux. Sylvain Laveissière’s entry is in fact very cautious as concerns it, with the attribution (due to Fabrizio Lemme himself) based for the moment solely on the inscription L.P. appearing on it.
In Rome, the artist was not forgotten by France, nor did he himself forget his country. He worked for the city of Lyon, producing notably an altar painting (lost), intended for the Ursulines and for which there is a very beautiful watercolor modello on view here (ill. 3), and for Dole as well, painting the very important (12 canvases in large format) cycle of the Life of Christ mentioned above. Although visitors absolutely need to go to the Collegiale church to admire the ensemble (ill. 4), they can enjoy seeing several small paintings connected to this commission in the show. The first, a sketch for The Annunciation (ill. 5) from a private collection, is a masterpiece, and undoubtedly authentic. Two other four-part series, representing the first eight compositions, have a different ownership history. The four small ones reside at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dole. Despite a more average quality, they are quite possibly originals. However, the other four, of larger size and owned by the Collegiale, are without a doubt workshop replicas, much less spontaneous and at times even awkward. The comparison between the three Annunciations, the large painting (ill. 6), the sketch from the private collection and the replica (ill. 7) is extremely enlightenting on the subject. Finally, we would point out the extraordinary drawing (ill. 8) identified by Pierre Rosenberg in a private collection [5], preparatory for this composition, but in which the two figures of the angel and the Virgin are nude.

5. Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821)
The Annunciation, 1766
Oil on Canvas - 62 x 48 cm
Private Collection
Photo : Didier Rykner

6. Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821)
The Annunciation, 1767
Oil on Canvas - 455 x 360 cm
Dole, Collégiale
Photo : D. R.

7. Studio of Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821)
The Annunciation
Oil on Canvas - 72.5 x 62.2 cm
Dole, Collégiale
Photo : Didier Rykner

8. Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821)
Study for the Annunciation, 1766
Pen, Brown Ink, Grey Wash,
White Gouache Heightenings - 40.8 x 29.6 cm
Paris, Private Collection
Photo : D. R.

The last four paintings in the cycle, commissioned directly by the city of Dole, contain three which are copies after Raphael, Daniele da Volterra and Salvator Rosa. We do not know if this was imposed in the order or an easier choice for the artist, perhaps overloaded with work (he was already in Turin at the time). In fact, we can see that he even repeated himself at times : the composition of Pentecost (ill. 9) is entirely similar, although presented vertically, to another painting with the same subject, part of a series of four commissioned by a Belgian painter [6]. The position of the Virgin in this work is also copied identically from the Annunciation.

9. Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821)
Oil on Canvas - 61 x 74 cm
Torino, galerie Benappi
Photo : D. R.

10. Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821)
The Dawn and Cephalus
Oil on Canvas - 263 x 153 cm
Courtesy Didier Aaron
Photo : D. R.

Laurent Pécheux’s style is not hard to recognize. It is characterized notably by the bright, almost acidic, colors ; fabrics with moiré reflections and classic physical types, close to certain 17th century painters such as Eustache Le Sueur. The section focusing on mythological figures shows a large canvas from a décor probably, representing The Dawn and Cephalus (ill. 10) responding perfectly to this definition. It has a companion piece, Diana and Endymion whose whereabouts are unknown but there is a sketch of it on view here.
Other works date from his time in Turin where the artist was called for in 1777 by the court of Piemonte-Sardegna. Leaving a secure position in Rome must not have been easy, especially since the French artist was strongly envied by the Italians there whom he would overshadow in a way. Once in Turin, he pursued his career much like in Rome by painting décors and executing religious commissions. He was also the official court portraitist. However, in our opinion, and judging at least from the paintings exhibited in Dole, portraits were not his strong point compared to the rest of his production. The models appear stiff, constrained... in no way comparable with Batoni’s masterpieces or even his very fine portrait of the sculptor Attiret held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, a spontaneous and familiar likeness, produced early in his career.

11. Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821)
Mucius Scaevola Threatening Lars Porsena
after Killing his Secretary
, circa 1802
Oil on Canvas - 81 x 100 cm
Turin, Galleria Sabauda
Photo : D. R.

Indeed, the exhibition demonstrates that the painter was at times at a loss for inspiration with the onset of old age. This decline in quality had not yet occurred however when he arrived in Turin. His décor for the vaulted ceiling in the library on the first floor of the Royal Palace, for which we see here a very beautiful drawing from a private collection, is instilled with a Baroque spirit which is also evident in a painted study reproduced in the catalogue and which is absolutely equal in quality to the Annunciation in Dole. But at the beginning of the 19th century (Pécheux died in 1821, at 92), his colors began to fade, his compositions became more awkward. This is what we observed in any case as shown by some studies such as Mucius Scaevola Threatening Lars Porsena after Killing his Secretary from the Galleria Sabauda (ill. 11). We find it unfortunate that the final painting, a large canvas, as well as another, Cloelia Crossing the Tiber, which are held rolled up and damaged in storage at the Musée de Chambéry, were not restored for the occasion...We hope that this very successful retrospective will elicit other initiatives including notably the safeguarding of these large formats.

Curators : Sylvain Laveissière, with the help of Sylvie de Vesvrotte, and Anne Dary.

Collective work, Laurent Pécheux. Un peintre français dans l’Italie des Lumières, 2012, Silvana Editoriale, 252 p., 28€. ISBN : 978-88-366-2317. The catalogue should appear in late August (we saw the proofs). We will provide the ISBN number as soon as possible.

Visitor information : Musée des Beaux-Arts, 85 rue des Arènes, 39100 Dole. Tel : 00 330(0)3 84 79 25 85. Open every day except Sunday morning and Monday, from 10 am to 12 noon, and 2 pm to 6 pm ; Wednesday until 8 pm. Free admission.

On Laurent Pécheux and the exhibition, see also the news item published here at the same time.

Version française

Didier Rykner, mardi 21 août 2012


[1] A companion piece to Batoni’s Polyphemus, Acis and Galatea from the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.

[2] Along with an old copy of Regulus.

[3] We remind our readers that art historians and exhibition curators may publish advertisements free of charge on this site, and that in many cases they have produced positive results. This Pécheux retrospective thus shows two works by the artist recovered in this way.

[4] The catalogue tells us that this Foundation acquired 156 paintings from this collection in 2010, a fact which we had overlooked and which we will soon discuss.

[5] The sheet had previously been attributed to the Cavaliere d’Arpino.

[6] On this subject, see our news item published at the same time as this article.

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