The Curious Tribulations of a Bust of Christ by Joseph-Marcellin Combette

1. Joseph-Marcellin Combette (1771-1840)
Christ on the Cross (fragment), 1836
Oil on Canvas - 61 x 52 cm
Belongs to the Municipality of Poligny
Photo : Denis Coekelberghs

11/2/12 - Unusual - Ignorance and foolishness can sometimes be more devastating than greed. How many art works have disappeared from churches because of this, destroyed or sold illegally amid general indifference without leaving any trace of their existence ?
This is what almost happened to the Jean Malouel painting, fortunately (but dearly) acquired not long ago by the Louvre (see news item of 13/1/12). The story we are about to tell here, though referring to an infinitely lowel level of quality, concerns a painting which, in this case, has almost entirely disappeared.

In 1972, a Belgian artist and private collector, Charles Vliegen (1903-1982), on one of his trips to France, visited the collegiate church of Saint-Hippolyte de Poligny and found the building under repair. He kept a travel diary and wrote : "Poligny. 19.7.72. - Christ on the cross by Joseph Marcellin Combette (1771-1840). Canvas dating from 1836, decorated the church choir (see picture of the church). During a cleaning of the left annex of the church, 2 paintings, including this one above, on deposit, were sacrificed and reduced to pieces. I was barely able to get a fragment at the last minute (the head of Christ). They offered to let me take all of it but the very large size made it impossible to transport."

This information was pointed out to us by Denis Coekelberghs, to whom Charles Vliegen gave this fragment a few years later, as well as the signature which had also been cut out. The size of this second fragment, bearing the inscription "J.M. Combette f bat anno 1836", 52 x 3 cm., gives us an idea of the size of the lost work.

2. Joseph-Marcellin Combette (1771-1840)
Christ on the Cross, 1838
Oil on Canvas - 194.5 x 129.5 cm
Montain, Church
Photo : J. L. Matthieu

Joseph-Marcellin Combette (1770-1840) was a painter from the Jura region, who studied in Paris under Claude Dejoux (and perhaps David), exhibited twice at the Salon of 1800 and 1801 before returning in 1804 to settle down in the Franche-Comté region where he spent the rest of his career. A 2009 exhibition highlighted his work at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lons-le-Saunier [1], and Denis Coekelberghs thus wished to donate this head of Christ (ill. 1) to the establishment. The curator, Anne Dary, of course accepted it, but the irony is that this donation did not have to go before the acquisitions commission. Since the work, destroyed forty years ago (with the guilty parties, perhaps gone today, never having responded for their actions) was never removed from the public domain, it still belongs in fact, though only as a mere fragment of the original, to the city of Poligny. We should recall that two other examples of Christ on the Cross by Combette are still documented and preserved, one dating from 1822 in the church of Saint-Just d’Arbois, the other from 1838, which looks much like what the one in Poligny must have been, hanging in the church of Montain (ill. 2).

What will happen now to this Christ on the Cross, reduced to a bust ? Poligny City Hall wishes to keep it ! Although the current municipal administration obviously had nothing to do with the vandalism which took place forty years ago, there remains the principle of continuity in city management and its responsibility as a legal entity. And it seems rather shocking that it should claim a work which was almost entirely destroyed under its authority and which was only partially saved, thanks to the initiative of a private individual. This is even more true since the Museum in Poligny has been closed since 1939 (!), with no precise plans for a future reopening [2].

If the city were to finally keep this head of Christ by Joseph Combette, we can at least hope that it will be gracious enough to extend its thanks to the donor who, in a certain way, has been deprived of this title.

Version française

Didier Rykner, lundi 13 février 2012


[1] Joseph-Marcellin Combette (Nozeroy, 1770-Poligny, 1840) : portraitiste et peintre d’histoire de Louis XVI à Louis-Philippe, Lons-le-Saunier, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 27 June to 12 October 2009 and Arbois, Musée Sarret de Grozon, from 1st July to 31st August 2009. We have taken the biographical elements from the small catalog published for the occasion.

[2] Readers can consult the website for the city of Poligny for acces to the Procès verbal de récolement des collections which gives an idea of the history of the museum and its collections. Of particular interest is the fact that it holds notably 53 deposits belonging to the government, 19 of which are from the Musée du Louvre.

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in News Items : An Update on the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes : an exhibition, a website... and the acquisition of a drawing by David

Next article in News Items : Hispanic Art History Journals on Internet (1)