The Martyrdom of Saint Agnes by Joseph-Désiré Court restored

1. Joseph Désiré
Court (1797-1865)
The Martyrdom
of Saint Agnes
, 1864 (Salon of 1865)
Oil on canvas - 496 x 812 cm
Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Carole
Lancien / Carole Loisel

23/6/08 — Restoration — Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts — The BNP-Paribas bank has a very active policy in helping museums (French and abroad) finance the restoration of works in their collections. The restoration which has just been completed at the museum in Rouen is no doubt one of the most commendable as it was a particularly challenging one. The Martyrdom of Saint Agnes (ill. 1) is, in fact, an immense painting, the kind of “giant” which museums do not really know what to do with and which are often left rolled up in storage [1].

Joseph-Désiré Court, Prix de Rome in 1821, was born in Rouen where he was curator at the Musée des Beaux-Arts which today holds several of his works. The artist died in early 1865 and The Martyrdom of Saint Agnes was exhibited posthumously at the Salon that same year where it was noticed especially by Charles Clément [2].
The exact title of the work, as specified in the brochure, is : Martyrdom of Saint Agnes in the Roman Forum, in the Year 303, under Diocletian. The composition is extremely original. Most of the canvas is taken up by a view of the Roman Forum, an imaginary one even if Clément points out : “in our opinion Court availed himself of the most recent [archeological] discoveries and the hypothetical part of his work does seem to have a great verisimilitude”. Each of the structures represented in the painting corresponds to a building which actually existed, then was assembled according to the artist’s imagination. The view is strongly influenced by the architecture projects for the Prix de Rome and by the panoramas, large painted scenes, which flourished in Paris during the first half of the century. The painting is a strange mixture of different influences : that of Le Brun, obvious in the figures in the forefront, especially on the left, that of Raphael, of Antoine Caron… Nevertheless, it remains a very original work and cannot be compared to any other painting of the same period. The martyrdom of the saint in the centre of the canvas seems to be almost secondary and the subject of the work is as secular as it is religious. Scenes from the popular sword and sandal peplum films easily come to mind.

2. The Martyrdom of Saint
by Joseph Désiré Court
exhibited in the
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen
Photo : D. Rykner

After the painting was unrolled, it was stretched on a new aluminium structure, then the canvas was consolidated before the layer of paint, which was very yellow from a thick varnish, was restored. The whole procedure took place in public before an audience. The results are excellent, in stark contrast to a work which was hard to appreciate and disappointing to the eye before its restoration. Today, it is filled with an extraordinary light. A frame in the appropriate style was produced by a team at the museum, adding the finishing touch to this rebirth. The painting will now hang in the covered courtyard of the museum housing the 19th century sculptures (ill. 2).

Version française

Didier Rykner, lundi 23 juin 2008


[1] The total cost of the operation amounts to 73,000€, with BNP-Paribas contributing 35,000€.

[2] Charles Clément, « Exposition de 1865. Cinquième article », Le Journal des Débats, 21 mai 1865.

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