Louis Cretey. A visionary artist between Lyon and Rome

Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 22 October 2010 to 24 January 2011

1. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-
after 1702)
The Ascension of Christ
Oil on canvas - 168 x 120 cm
England, private collection
Photo : All rights reserved

This is one of the most interesting and innovative exhibitions currently showing in France. True, art specialists along with a few enlightened amateurs already knew Louis Cretey [1]. But, with the exception of perhaps Michel Descours, the collector and dealer in Lyons who lent no less than 14 paintings, even they would havenever guessed the effects resulting from the re-discovery of this painter.

Although he is not “the greatest 17th century French painter” as some have boldly declared, he is certainly one of the best within the Lyonnaise school at a time when artists excelled. Above all, he is one of the most original, a veritable creator of forms, a skill not within everyone’s reach. His painting, The Resurrection of Christ (ill. 1) is exceptionally striking, and cannot be compared to any other at this time in Lyons, nor for that matter in Rome. This is of course a baroque work, but with a radically new composition and colours, which left no apparent legacy until the following century. In fact, it is interesting to see that many of his works were attributed to 18th century painters, especially Germans or Austrians such as Franz Anton Maulbertsch or Paul Troger.

2. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-after 1702)
Tobias Burying the Dead
Oil on canvas - 65 x 74 cm
Paris, private collection
Photo : Alberto Ricci

The start of the exhibition, however, is somewhat disappointing with three rather mediocre paintings, due perhaps to the fact they are poorly preserved. This is a recurring problem in the show : Cretey painted in a thick manner, with many glazes which did not all survive the years. The pictorial matter is often worn, the colors have darkened, thus explaining the uneven quality in the appearance of the canvases. Since this is his first retrospective though, it was important to display the largest possible number of works in order to understand his art. Many of these were published by Pierre Rosenberg, Lucie Galacteros de Boissier and the late Gilles Chomer in 1988 in a pioneering article which appeared in the Revue de l’Art but others had remained unedited until now. Generally speaking, the attributions appear to be entirely convincing, except for perhaps one or two paintings.

As we said earlier, his art is profoundly original. Nevertheless, some comparisons can be made with certain contemporaries, essentially Italians, notably Pier Francesco Mola or Baciccio, although the latter is less persuasive. There also a few French artists who come to mind such as Pierre Puget or even Sébastien Bourdon as revealed in Tobias Burying the Dead (ill. 2). But looking for influences is not really very productive and remains somewhat a game. Some paintings for example may seem close to Antonio Balestra or Francesco Trevisani, both much younger than Cretey, like The Nativity (ill. 3) from Detroit which was even attributed to Balestra, but these analogies are misleading. This is a criticism we would make about the catalogue entries in general, which seem to focus essentially on this aspect of the works as well as the chronology, due to the lack of more concrete elements in the painter’s career since his life is not very well known and documentary research, notably the very thorough studies undertaken by Aude Henry-Gobet, has not really turned up very much. Indeed, no one has been able to determine either his date of birth or death. So, there are not enough reliable points in Cretey’s oeuvre to establish a clear idea of his career, and although the attempts to do so are commendable, they are not really convincing. Pierre Rosenberg in fact emphasizes how fragile these theories are. Trying to date each painting within the range of a few years by claiming that a section of one resembles a portion on another one seems particularly bold and a bit exaggerated.

3. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-after 1702)
The Nativity
Oil on canvas - 58.1 x 74.9 cm
Detroit, Institut of Arts
Photo : The Bridgeman Art Library

4. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-after 1702)
Christ in the Garden of Olives
Oil on canvas - 95.5 x 119.5 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Alain Basset

5. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-
after 1702)
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Oil on canvas - 133 x 92 cm
Motais de Narbonne collection
Photo : Musée du Louvre

We will take only one example, enough to show the fallacies of this kind of reasoning and wonder how pertinent it really is. Two canvases, The Nativity quoted above and Christ in the Garden of Olives (ill. 4) have much in common, in our opinion, notably in their luminist treatment, something not found in the other works. This does not mean that we think they are contemporary but it is more likely in their case than, for instance, in the case of the first and The Temptation of Saint Anthony (ill. 5) from the Motais de Narbonne collection. Christ in the Garden of Olives is dated shortly before 1683 because “the reclining position of Christ and his dialogue with the angels recalls Saint Jerome (ill. 6) from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyons” (1682-1683). Can we really conclude that two paintings were done in the same time frame because their iconographic themes are similar and because two figures are both reclining ? Another explanation, “the background [of Christ in the Garden of Olives] widely brushed in on the right […] recalls by its conception and treatment” a Saint Jerome (ill. 7) in a private collection “towards 1675-1680”. We do not find this to be a conclusive analogy : the scene on the right in the first painting recalls many other backgrounds and this Saint Jerome is in fact not very different from Christ in the Garden of Olives.

6. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-after 1702)
The Vision of Saint Jerome
Oil on canvas - 175 x 239 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Alain Basset

7. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-after 1702)
The Vision of Saint Jerome
Oil on canvas - 150.5 x 127 cm
Private collection
Photo : Didier Rykner

8. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-after 1702)
The Baptism of Christ
Oil on canvas - 94 x 130 cm
Vatican, Musées du Vatican
Photo : Musées du Vatican

We will not attempt to establish a different chronology here, this being a complicated task which would probably result in something as debatable as the one presented in the exhibition. But we do believe that it would have been more useful to consider the works in the overall scheme instead of comparing details in the compositions of individual paintings in order to imagine what might have been painted at the same period. In our opinion, the works might have been organized into two or three groups to begin with, thus perhaps provoking some ideas. For instance, there is an entire ensemble of canvases which evokes German baroque painting in the following century, with light colours, dynamic compositions, more elongated figures. In this way, we could compare Christ Dead Mourned by an Angel (cat. P. 12), The Resurrection (cat. P. 13) or The Penitence of Saint Marin (cat. P. 26), The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian [2] (P. 37), The Baptism of Christ (ill. 8 ; P. 62) and even perhaps The Temptation of Saint Anthony (P. 04). The fact that all of these paintings are, according to the time line suggested here, spread out over the artist’s entire career, despite obvious characteristics in common raises, however a number of problems.
But in fact, this issue is not as important here as the fact that this artist has finally been re-discovered. What matters most is the quality of his work and there is no doubt that it is exceptional.

9. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-
after 1702)
The Christ Deposed after the Flagellation
Oil on canvas - 171 x 118 cm
Marseille, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Jean Bernard

10. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-after 1702)
The Vision of saint Bruno
Oil on canvas - 69.2 x 80 cm
Michel Descours collection
Photo : Didier Rykner

Among the most beautiful paintings in the exhibition, we would like to point out notably The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Christ Deposed after the Flagellation [3] (ill. 9), the Vision of Saint Jerome (P. 17) mentioned above (ill. 7) whose style is so different from the group of light paintings and much closer to Pier Francesco Mola, Noah Intoxicated, and The Young Tobias Rendering his Sight back to his Father Tobit, from the Descours collection, Mary Magdalene Contemplating the Holy Nails (P. 30) unfortunately not present here, The Vision of Saint Bruno (ill. 10) (P. 42) which we find very similar with its sparkling touch to the previous painting, the three superb tondi representing saints with landscapes (P. 46 to P. 48) or the two Flight into Egypt (P. 65 and P. 69 ; ill. 11). We mention in passing here that the publication accompanying the exhibition is in fact the catalogue raisonné for all the known works [4].

11. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-after 1702)
The Flight into Egypt
Oil on canvas - 80 x 100 cm
Private collection
Photo : Didier Rykner

12. Refectory of the Palais Saint-Pierre
after the restoration of the paintings by Cretey
The sculptures are by Simon Guillaume
Photo : Alain Basset

None of Cretey’s drawings had been authenticated until now. Thanks to Jean-Christophe Baudequin’s trained eye as well as his intuition, visitors will see four sheets here, all obviously by the same artist, perhaps Cretey. This is a very attractive theory, which can only be confirmed the day a preparatory study for a known work (or even perhaps a signed sheet) is finally discovered.
The exhibition also displays, an unusual event, an entire décor by Louis Cretey which he painted between 1684 and 1686 in the former refectory (ill. 12). This ensemble, made up of three domed ceilings painted in oil on plaster and two large canvases located on the two small side walls, has just been restored thanks to generous patronage from BNP-Paribas [5]. The last two are in better condition than those on the ceiling. The Assumption and The Ascension, in particular, have been extensively repainted through the centuries ; Elias’ Chariot (ill. 13), on the other hand is still well preserved. Interestingly, at the same date, we see therefore that Cretey could work in a dark manner (the canvases) or, on the contrary, with lighter colours (the calottes), further complicating the problem of determining the changes in the artist’s career.

13. Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-
after 1702)
Elias’ Chariot
Oil on coating
Décor from the Palais Saint-Pierre in Lyon
(Musée des Beaux-Arts)
after restoration
Photo : Didier Rykner

We should undoubtedly expect to find a number of Cretey works resurfacing thanks to this exhibition, now hiding under other names. Let us also hope, but with no great conviction given the extensive research already attempted, that new information will be found allowing historians to place Cretey more accurately in his context and to date his works more precisely. Thanks to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyons, the knowledge of 17th century French painting has been significantly enriched.

Aude Henry-Gobet, under the scholarly supervision of Pierre Rosenberg, Louis Cretey. Un visionnaire entre Lyon et Rome, Somogy Editions d’Art, 2010, 296 p., 38€. ISBN : 9782757204214.

Visitor information : Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, 20 place des Terreaux, 69001 Lyon. Tel : 04 72 10 17 40. Open every day, except Tuesday, from 10 am to 6 pm, Friday from 10.30 am to 6 pm. Tickets : 9 € (reduced rate : 6€).

Didier Rykner, samedi 30 octobre 2010


[1] This is his actual name and not Pierre-Louis Cretey as thought until now. Archives give only one first name, Louis.

[2] Here, we should remember that Irene is not a saint.

[3] A Christ whose back is strangely free of any marks.

[4] It would have been helpful to point out the works presented in the exhibition.

[5] We will provide the names of the restorers as soon as we receive the information.

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