Nicolas Colombel

Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 9 November 2012 to 24 February 2013.

1. Nicolas Colombel (1644 ? - 1717)
Clytie, 1682
Oil on Canvas - 121 x 171.5 cm
Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Agence La Belle Vie/MBA Rouen

Since 1984 and the memorable exhibition highlighting 17th century painting in Rouen, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in this city had strangely enough not staged any other retrospectives of old master painting. This has now been remedied with the current show on Nicolas Colombel, in the planning for quite some time and which the new director, Sylvain Amic, chose to hold earlier.

The artist, born near Rouen, was present in 1984 as the museum had just purchased that same year one of his masterpieces, Christ and the Adultress (ill. 1) which for a long time was one of the very few paintings familiar to the art public.
This, and the comments of various authors passed down in history which characterized the artist as a simple emulator of Nicolas Poussin long blurred his true image despite a pioneering article by Anthony Blunt in La Revue de l’Art in 1970. This canvas is indeed so "Poussin-like" that we could have sworn that Colombel was just that, a simple (but talented) imitator of the painter from Andelys.
The rediscovery of a great number of paintings these past few years, the appearance of several of them on the art market and, above all, the work of Karen Chastagnol, who is responsible for today’s exhibition, will now force art historians to reconsider their criticism. In his introduction to the catalogue, Pierre Rosenberg, one of the artist’s most knowledgeable experts, writes : "once and for all, there is a Colombel style (once and for all ? unless a surprise pops up, a possibility which cannot be excluded"). We think this surprise has indeed taken place. The exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen proves that Colombel is not an artist with only one style nor the blind imitator of limited talent described by Dezallier d’Argenville.

2. Nicolas Colombel (1644 ? - 1717)
Oil on Canvas - 103 x 81 cm
Auxerre, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
Photo : Didier Rykner

The catalogue does not limit itself only to works on view at the museum. It lists the entire painted oeuvre found until now, as well as drawings (of which few examples have been identified). The exhibition, providing a rich offering, was however deprived of two paintings residing at the Saint Louis Art Museum which were supposed to have been included (and are designated as such). However, even among the missing canvases, none of them is as close to Poussin as this Christ and the Adultress. Colombel was in fact marked by many painters, both French and Italian, which, in a non-exhaustive way, included Pierre Mignard, Sassoferrato, Philippe de Champaigne, Albani... Does this mean he was not in any way original ? Certainly not. Though he does recall some artists from his same generation (such as René-Antoine Houasse), Colombel’s art is generally easy to recognize. The artist does indeed have his own style, consisting in a gentle Classicism, at times a bit affected, a fondness for subtle and porcelain-like colors, deep blues (close to Sassoferrato). There is also a type of figure, particularly female ones, which is characteristic of Nicolas Colombel. Thus, the attribution made by Guillaume Kazerouni of a painting held at the Musée d’Auxerre (ill. 2) thanks to the photograph published on this site as an anonymous work was remarkable but would have in fact been quite evident after seeing the exhibition (where it hangs). The show will no doubt bring to light works which had lost their attribution.

3. Nicolas Colombel (1644 ? - 1717)
Saint Dominic Presenting the Dominican Order
to Christ
, c. 1687
Oil on Canvas - 400 x 246 cm
Grenoble, Musée
Photo : Musée de Grenoble

4. Nicolas Colombel (1644 ? - 1717)
Saint Hyacinth Saving the Statue of the Virgin
from the Enemies of the Christian Name
, c. 1686-1694
Oil on Canvas - 239 x 174 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Didier Rykner

But is Colombel at least a great painter, since he cannot be classified as the genius he aspired to be ? On this point, visitors to the exhibition differ widely. Some find him weak. This is not our case. Except for perhaps a few paintings, no doubt most of his portraits, the artist displays a talent we had not previously imagined.
One of his masterpieces, apparently a unique case due to its size and ambition, is an altar painting which was identified only in 2000 by the late Gilles Chomer. Residing at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Grenoble, this Saint Dominic Presenting the Dominican Order to Christ (ill. 3) is both magnificently painted and superbly composed. It hangs next to two other altarpieces of more modest dimensions, a canvas from the Louvre which we do not remember ever seeing, Saint Hyacinth Saving the Statue of the Virgin from the Enemies of the Christian Name (ill. 4) and a Saint Bruno painted for the Chartreuse in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Although, a bit like Poussin, Colombel produced mostly paintings for private residences, executed mainly for art lovers who were nobles or grand bourgeois, these three church works demonstrate that he could have become the more classical equivalent of Jouvenet, his exact contemporary and fellow Norman.

5. Nicolas Colombel (1644 ? - 1717)
Narcissus Looking at himself in the Water,
before 1680
Not exhibited in Rouen
Oil on Canvas - 50.7 x 72.4 cm
Salisbury, Wilton House
Photo : Bridgeman Art Library

The hang of the exhibition, in an understated and perfectly adapted setting, is both chronological and thematic. We find it unfortunate that the catalogue chose a purely iconographic classification. Karen Chastagnol explains that it is difficult to establish a chronology (is this true in fact ?). But the selected order is not totally coherent. For example, in the section on mythology, the first known painting by Colombel, Narcissus Looking at himself in the Water (ill. 5 ; not exhibited), signed N. Colombelli P., is also the only one identified as being painted in Italy before 1680 [1]. With an unusual manner and colors (the lack of a signature would have probably made it difficult to identify), it is displayed after several mythological paintings produced much later and in a very different style, which is entirely illogical.
We should also point out a few other discrepancies in the catalogue text, such as the one concerning, for example, Christ and the Adultress. The historical background states that it was painted in Rome in 1682 and sent to Paris along with three other religious compositions, but the entry only mentions its companion piece, without telling us its subject (nor apparently that it is not catalogued, not even in the mentioned works) before adding that only three of the four paintings in the series were exhibited at the Salon. It appears that the Saint Louis canvases missing from the show are the two others from the series, but their format is different, and vertical... In short, this is not at all clear. If we were to admit that these three works were part of the same commission, which is and where is the fourth painting, the companion piece to the one in Rouen ?

6. Nicolas Colombel (1644 ? - 1717)
Mars and Reta Silvia
Reception piece of 1694
Oil on Canvas - 145 x 173 cm
Paris, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts
Photo : Ensba

7. Nicolas Colombel (1644 ? - 1717)
Psyche Abandoned by Cupid
Oil on Canvas - 118 x 148 cm
United States, private collection
Photo : Courtesy Colnaghi
Photo : Ensba

We could not avoid presenting the above criticism though this does not take away from the excellent quality of the exhibition and the catalogue which contains fine reproductions and several interesting essays.
The life of Colombel, a Norman painter who traveled to Italy before settling down in Paris where he became an Academician, is told, in this case, in a very clear and pertinent manner by Karen Chastagnol. She places the artist in the artistic context of Paris in the late 17th century (notably the color debate) and provides an in-depth analysis of his originality and importance.
If we are to believe, as seen in the few sheets on display, that Colombel cannot be considered a great draughtsman (perhaps this view will be altered by future discoveries), he has nevertheless now found his place in the history of French painting. And when we see the beauty of his canvases - we could quote several others - such as his reception piece (ill. 6) or Psyche Abandoned by Cupid (ill. 7) from an American private collection, we must admit there is nothing mediocre about it.

Curators : Diederick Bakhuÿs and Karen Chastagnol

Collective work, Nicolas Colombel, 2012, Coédition Editions Nicolas Chaudun/Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, 224 p., 39€. ISBN : 9783250391472.

Visitor information : Musée des Beaux-Arts, esplanade Marcel Duchamp, 76000 Rouen. Tel : +33 (0)2 35 71 28 40. Open every day from 10 am to 6 pm except Tuesdays. Admission : 7€(full price), 4€(reduced rate).

Version française

Didier Rykner, mercredi 9 janvier 2013


[1] This is a deduction since he is quoted by Peter Lely, who died in 1640.

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