Strokes of Genius

Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts, from 12 April to 22 July 2013.
Lille, Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, from 3 April to 30 June 2013.

1. Attributed to Francesco Salviati (1510-1563)
Study of a Dragon, XVIth century
Pen and Brown Ink, Brown Wash, Black Chalk,
White Gouache - 26 x 31 cm
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille

There is a fine line between bravery and ignorance. A contemporary artist who dares to stand alongside the old masters in any case comes across as being almost foolhardy.
The Palais des Beaux-Arts wished to pay tribute to Jean-Baptiste Wicar, born in Lille 250 years ago - but not the painter, museum curator nor Academy director [1], instead the discerning collector who, after spending thirty years of his life in Italy, left 1300 graphic works to his home town, making the museum the owner of one of the largest collections of Italian drawings anywhere. Although Wicar had a special fondness for Raphael as well as the 16th and 17th century Florentines (ill. 1), he also selected some Northern European and French works, purchased a bit less systematically and with no intent of establishing a panorama of Flemish, German, Dutch or French art history. Thus, visitors will discover, indiscriminately a portrait of Lucas de Leyde by Dürer, Saint John in a Landscape by Lucas Cranach, then a gallery of other saints by Holbein, moving on to The Massacre of the Innocents by Poussin and The Oath of the Horatii by David (ill. 2) ; Jacques-Louis David was in fact Wicar’s master.

2. Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
The Oath of the Horatii, c. 1785
Graphite, Pen and Charcoal Ink, Grey Wash,
White Chalk Heightenings - 22 x 33.3 cm
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille

The story of this collection is long and complicated : a first group of works was stolen from Jean-Baptiste Wicar in 1799. He assembled other drawings, which he sold in 1823 to an English art dealer, Samuel Woodburn, bought back part of his original collection and continued to add to it. This third and final ensemble was then bequeathed [2] in 1834 to the Société des sciences, de l’agriculture et des arts of Lille which turned over its rights to the city in 1865 ; the "Musée Wicar" then joined the painting museum at city hall, headed by Reynart, before becoming part of the Palais des Beaux-Arts when it was inaugurated in 1892.

The drawings were grouped together in seven volumes, five of which have been found. The first held the masterpieces in the collection, classified in chronological order and by school. The second was entirely devoted to Raphael, with about fifty sheets. "When putting together these albums Wicar showed himself a follower of a type of collecting prevalent in France in the 18th century [...] which favored the 16th century and the classical 17th century, not hesitating to bring together different schools in the section set aside for masterpieces (Titian, Michelangelo, Annibale Carracci, Rembrandt)" [3]. Other volumes were probably not assembled by the collector himself but bought as is.

3. Anonymous
Head of a Man Seen Face On, XVth century
Black Chalk, White Gouache - 26 x 17.8 cm
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille

4. Baccio Della Porta called Fra Bartolomeo (1472-1517)
Draped Monk Seen From the Back
Black Chalk, White Chalk - 28.1 x 15 cm
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille

Despite his personal preferences, he wished to acquire a sample of works representative of the evolution of painting, much like the attempt made by Abbé Lanzi [4] which at the time marked the vision of Italian art. His collection therefore opens with the "Primitives" which he copied - notably Fra Angelico - and purchased, over-enthusiastically attributing a series of miniatures representing the apostles on a gold background to Giotto. He considered, again mistakenly, thirteen drawings to be by Masaccio, among these a superb Head of a Man now relegated to the limbo of anonymous works after being also attributed to Mantegna, Bramante, Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio and Bramantino (ill. 3) while a representation of Saint Luke Meditating is today thought to be a copy after a fresco by Filippo Lippi in Prato and sometimes given to Filippino [5]. Among the painters of the "first Florentine school" in fact, Filippino Lippi is particularly well represented, especially as some sheets in the collection have been reattributed to him since then, notably studies for a Virgin with Child which Wicar had given to Botticelli.

5. Tiziano Vecellio, called Tiziano (1488/1489-1576)
Study for the Death of Saint Peter, Martyr
Pen and Brown Ink - 14.4 x 19.1 cm
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille

The Italian Golden Age is represented by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and also Fra Bartolomeo, in whom the collector eventually specialized, accumulating a large number of works, among them a Holy Conversation but particularly a Draped Monk seen from the Back preparatory for the fresco of The Last Judgement in Santa Maria Nuova in Florence (ill. 4). He did not own much by Leonardo except for a sheet of caricatures today considered to be after the master, and a drapery study with a Saint Sebastian on the back which today has no attribution at all. At the time, art lovers did not fight over drawings by Michelangelo and, in this case, Jean-Baptiste Wicar proved to be insightful, purchasing notably architectural studies. Titian is also present with a study for a panel which today is lost but was copied by Géricault : Saint Peter, Martyr (ill. 5).

6. Raffaello Sanzio, called Raffaello (1483-1520)
Study for the Madonna d’Alba
Red Chalk - 38.5 x 25 cm
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille

However, the star attraction of this collection is the group of drawings by Raphael (ill. 6) ; visitors will discover about twenty in this exhibition. Of course, the attribution of some of the sheets has since then come under debate, such as Head of the Virgin, with the Pearl ; despite these doubts, Maria Teresa Caracciolo wishes to emphasize [6] Jean-Baptiste Wicar’s intuition in his purchases and attributions to the master, taking an interest in all of the periods of his career ; she evokes the collection of engravings produced in 1858 in Lille under the supervision of the Duke of Luynes presenting the most important works in the holdings [7] and which, though it is today outdated, gives us an idea of the collector’s clear-sightedness.
The series of drawings from the 16th, 17th and 18th century Florentine school is another strong point of the holdings, from Giovanni Battista Naldini to Ferretti, also including Jacopo da Empoli, Carlo Dolci and Alessandro Gherardini. In fact, Lille had held an exhibition on the Florentines - of the 17th and 18th century only - assembled by Wicar [8].

The publication accompanying the exhibition is not presented in the form of a catalogue of works with entries, as this was already done by Barbara Brejon de Lavergnée [9], at least for the Italian sheets [10]. However, it gives the exact contents of the Wicar bequest by publishing a complete list [11] without distinguishing the schools but in order of their inventory number today. Before this, no full list had ever been published, since previous inventories - those made in Rome then in Lille when the works arrived - had disappeared.
Also, this book does not attempt to revise any of the attributions - many have changed since the bequest was made ; the list mentions the oldest ones, those by Benvignat and Pluchart who wrote the first catalogues for the holdings. In 1856, Charles Benvignat [12] chose to present them in alphabetical order with a chronology, in the tradition of Abbé Lanzi, the author of Storia pittorica della Italia published in 1792 and reedited in 1809. Henry Pluchart’s catalogue of 1889 [13] proposes a listing by schools but eliminates a certain number of sheets for mysterious reasons.
As for the essays in the work, they trace the history of the collection, analyzing the collector’s approach and his taste, a reflection of the period. Unfortunately, the lack of an index and a bibliography make it difficult to consult. It can be read from both ends since by turning it around, we find the pages featuring Ernest Pignon-Ernest, a contemporary artist who was invited to establish a "dialogue" with the Wicar holdings.

7. A view of the exhibition
In the foreground : a Study of Male Nudes by Pontormo
Behind it : work by Ernest Pignon-Ernest
Photo : BBSG

8. A view of the exhibition
on the sides : the old master drawings
in the middle : the work of Ernest Pignon-Ernest
Photo : BBSG

The Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille thus presents a survey of 200 drawings from the 15th to the 18th century, in a particularly understated setting. In a chronological listing by school, the sheets are displayed in a frieze around the walls, remaining on the sides, while the (immense) center of the room is invaded by the (immense) works of Ernest Pignon-Ernest (ill. 7 and 8).

9. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
The Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1625-1629
Pen and Brown Ink Wash - 14.9 x 16.5 cm
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille

This well-known and acclaimed artist offers two installations, one at the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, dating from 2008, depicts the Ecstasies of the great mystics - Mary Magdalene, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa de Avila... - in a very gripping manner. The second one, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts was designed specifically for the exhibition ; it is however much less convincing. The artist based his work on about ten drawings from the Wicar collection, selecting works by Nicolo dell’Abate, Pontormo, Guido Reni, Guercino, Titian, Salviati, Raphael (more precisely, after Raphael, Group of Men in Fight, Fleeing and only one French artist, Nicolas Poussin (ill. 9). Unfortunately, he seems to simply have copied them into large format. That’s it ! We would have much preferred to see the focus put on the originals, rather than these copies.
The first puzzling feature is that Ernest Pignon-Ernest is a pioneer of street art and therefore pays particular attention to the space where his work stands : "I incorporate a narrative, an image, a drawing which only takes on its sense and form depending on [its] insertion [in the place]". He himself says that "the drawing is not enough" [14]. And yet we see him here confronted not with spatial restrictions - the temporary exhibition room of the Lille museum is rather neutral, impersonal and adaptable - but indeed with drawings which stand on their own and are art works in their own right.
We cannot really chide Ernest Pignon-Ernest for seeking to confront the great masters of the past : any good fine arts student wishing to progress of course does so. But Ernest Pignon-Ernest no longer shows the frailties or the humility of a student : "I would like to find the dynamics of the rough sketch on a large scale in order to inherit its simplicity. [15]. Finding simplicity, but on a large scale. This is quite an oxymoron which translates concretely into masking the Elders, whose vision was more modest. This is all the more embarrassing since their drawings do not need to be big to be powerful. True, these "traits de génies" are in no way sacred and there is no law forbidding anyone from challenging them. André Velter is in fact enthusiastic : "Ernest Pignon-Ernest then begins to transfigure the old drawing." [16]. In all simplicity, Titian and Poussin have been transfigured. Just what was needed.

Curators : Cordélia Hattori, Régis Cotentin.

Under the supervision of Cordélia Hattori, Traits de génie. Les dessins de la collection Wicar (Raphaël / Botticelli / Michel-Ange / Dürer / Poussin) // Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille / Nicolas Chaudun, 2013, 288 p., 39€. ISBN : 978-2-35039-156-4.

Visitor information : Palais des Beaux-Arts, place de la République, 59000 Lille. Tel : +33(0)3 20 06 78 00. Open every day except Tuesday, Monday from 2 pm to 6 pm, Wednesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. Admission : 6€ (reduced : 4€).

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, jeudi 9 mai 2013


[1] He was appointed curator of the Muséum central des arts (that is, the Louvre) in 1794 but resigned shortly thereafter. He was also the director of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Naples from 1806 to 1809.

[2] Besides the drawings, Jean-Baptiste Wicar left some engravings, art objects and sculptures, notably a bas-relief by Donatello, Herod’s Feast, as well as a painting by Wicar himself, The Resurrection of the Son of the Nain Widow

[3] Cordélia Hattori, "Introduction au legs de Jean-Baptiste Wicar", exhibition catalogue, p. 36.

[4] Luigi Lanzi, Storia pittorica dell’Italia dal risorgimento delle belle arti fin presso al fine del XVIII secolo, 1796.

[5] Paul Joannides, quoted in the exhibition catalogue, p. 56.

[6] Maria Teresa Caracciolo, "Jean-Baptiste Wicar collectionneur de dessins : une approche à rebours", exhibition catalogue, p. 72.

[7] Choix de dessins de Raphaël qui font partie de la collection Wicar à Lille reproduits en fac-similé par MM. Wacquez et Leroy, gravé par les soins de M.H. d’Albert duc de Luynes, membre de l’Institut, Paris, 1858. Quoted in the exhibition catalogue, p. 72.

[8] "Bellezze di Firenze. Dessins Florentins des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lille". Lille, Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, 8 February 1993-20 April 1993.

[9] Barabara Brejon de Lavergnée, Catalogue des dessins italiens. Collection du Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille, Paris/Lille, 1997.

[10] The Northern European and French drawings are not in the same catalogue as above.

[11] Virginie Ansart-Bernast for her doctoral thesis, Musée des Beaux art de Lille : le cabinet des dessins du fonds Wicar (1834) à l’époque contemporaine (2000)). La Médée de Delacroix, projets, esquisses, études, 2002.

[12] Charles Benvignat (1805-1877), architect, curator of the Musée Wicar, Ville de Lille - Musée Wicar. Catalogue des dessins et objets d’art légués par Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Lille, 1856. Exhibition catalogue, p. 23.

[13] Henry Pluchart (1835-1898), curator of the Musée de Dessins, Musée Wicar : Notices des dessins, cartons, pastels, miniatures et grisailles, Lille, 1889.

[14] Introduction by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, exhibition catalogue, p. 8.

[15] André Velter, "Extases", exhibition catalogue, p. 29.

[16] André Velter, "Extases", exhibition catalogue, p. 33.

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