Leonardo at the Louvre with Rembrandt

Museum guards keep watch on debarred RembrandtBad luck Rembrandt, Leonardo got here before you.”

The ageing and disconsolate Rembrandt is seated on the Escalier Daru at the entrance to the Louvre accompanied by Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec and van Gogh. On stage Leonardo struts his stuff with the Mona Lisa. The Victory of Samothrace a classical Greek statue, of 220-190 BC, sits at the head of the famous 1850s staircase. It forms part of the background that frames the Dutch Master. Museum guards regard with suspicion the excluded and no longer  fashionable Rembrandt, unable, apparently, to gain entrance to the temple of beauty.Rembrandt, is holding in his left hand his 1636 panel painting Susanna Bathing. In Matthew’s painting, the version Rembrandt holds is on canvas. To the right and partly blocking Susanna Bathing, is the artist’s faithful hound gazing mournfully into Rembrandt’s eyes. He has the typical characteristics of a stray, lean wiry and tan coloured. The two female figures enclosing the Rembrandt group are keening-an Irish lament for the dead-the great Dutch master’s ill fortune. Leonardo, is flanked by two maidens, posing in front of La Gioconda,  and making  Tour de France-winner gestures. He and his masterpiece, surrounded by security guards, are being assailed by admirers and art lovers.
Maragliano, Anton Maria,  Genoa, 1664-1739.Madonna del Rosario, The cathedral-church of San Siro, Sanremo. Baroque polychrome timber sculpture that inspired parts of the Rembrandt. Preparatory pencil study for figure of Rembrandt seated on the steps of the Louvre.

In 1515, the French King Francis I invaded northern Italy. A year later, taking advantage of the new realpolitik, Leonardo da Vinci left northern Italy to accept a grace and favour house in France close to Château d’Amboise the residence of the King. He brought with him the Gioconda that, on  Leonardo’s death, May 1519 passed into the Royal collection, the Tableaux du Roy.

Leonardo was the beginning of the French love affair with Italian art that lasted to the beginning of the twentieth century and the paintings of Boldini and Modigliani. A generation after Leonardo, Italian Mannerist painters, fleeing unsettled political conditions in northern Italy reached France. These artists were greatly influenced by the peculiarly idiosyncratic paintings of Parmigianino (Francesco Mazzola). The Parma artist’s technique was a mixture of Raphael and Michelangelo and notable for elongated figures created in a stylised manner. This characteristic, taken up by Niccolò dell’Abbate, Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio put down strong roots in French painting and developed from, 1531 onwards, the French Mannerism style later known as the  School of Fontainebleau.
In January 1639, Louis XIII signed an ordinance inviting Poussin, one of France’s greatest painters and permanently established in Rome to return to Paris and carry out commissions for the royal establishment. Despite the artists reluctance to quit Rome, the King’s superintendent of monuments, François Sublet de Noyers, let him know that this was an invitation he could not refuse. Nicolas Poussin arrived in December 1640 but as a precaution against the long arm of the King, had left his wife, Anne-Marie Dughet behind in Rome.
Treated with great respect by both Louis XIII and Cardinal de Richelieu,  Poussin found himself, on a practical level, up against the established interest of resident Parisian artists particularly the powerful Simon Vouet, kings professor of painting and founder of the Académie de Saint-Luc. The Baroque and Caracci style of Vouet’s atelier fitted the grandiose, heroic and adulatory manner required for working for the royal French household and was at variance with Poussin’s more contemplative style. Simon Vouet was a pitiless and disagreeable rival losing no opportunity to make Poussin’s life miserable.
Overwhelmed by logistic and management problems associated with overseeing projects for designs and decorations for the Grande Galerie du Louvre, several palaces, public buildings and church construction under the control of the Royal palace, by July 1642 Poussin had had enough.  With permission from the king’s superintendent, the artist left Paris carrying little luggage in order to collect his wife in Rome and return with her to Paris. Reaching Lyon travelling south, Poussin contacted Jacques Stella and through this painter friend, sent superintendent François Sublet de Noyers formal notice that he would not return.
Nicolas Poussin never did form part of the French artistic establishment. The Bourbon monarchs who had ruled France from the later part of the sixteenth century until the French Revolution did not appreciate the artist’s decision to abandon France.  His paintings, as a result, did not, (together with those of Antoon van Dyck), enter the royal collection until 1780, more than a hundred years after his death, confirming a saying attributed to Talleyrand, that the Bourbons learned nothing and forgot nothing.

Left: Rembrandt 1660 Self- Portrait with an Easel. Louis XIV acquired, about 1671 the late self-portrait, shortly after the artist’s death.
Right: Rosso Fiorentino, 1494-1540, Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist. Oil on panel, 63.5 x 42.5 x 3 cm, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

In 1624 Peter Paul Rubens had completed a cycle of twenty-four very large canvas paintings with his assistants  extolling the virtues of Marie de’ Medici, wife of Henry IV for the Palais du Luxembourg. They were rehung later in the Louvre. The overpowering effect these mural-sized works created on the public and contemporary artists like Watteau, ushered in the demise of the Fontainebleau school and a change in direction in French painting to the Baroque. On the death of Marie de’ Medici the Rubens series became available to selected visitors and young artists thus initiating the gradual opening of the Royal collection to viewing by the middle classes on a limited basis. The Tableaux du Roy began life as a formal art museum when King Louis XV in 1750 permitted a number of paintings in the Royal collection to be viewed by the public two days a week (Wednesdays and Saturdays) in the Palais du Luxembourg. The paintings on display to the public favoured the Italian school, particularly works by Titian, Veronese, Raphael and the Baroque. Rembrandt’s paintings did not enter the Louvre in any quantity until 1780, fifty years after its foundation, a period when the dark sombre works of the Dutch master underwent a dip in popularity.

Towards the end of his life Rembrandt adopted a style of roughly applying blocks of paint to the canvas with a broad loaded brush or a palette knife so that the painting could be viewed like a coloured bas-relief. It had had been replaced in late seventeenth-century Netherlands with a fashion for classical art or jewel-like surfaces produced by his contemporary, Jan Vermeer, Gerard Dou who had been his pupil, or the refined detailed works of Gabriel Metsu. By this time, the officially accepted style favoured smoothly executed paintings based on the late Italian Renaissance and Peter Paul Rubens.
Rembrandt’s rough handling of paint conflicted with this change in artistic taste with the result institutional and government contracts tended to pass him by.  A frequently cited example is the, Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, a much cut-down fragment of which survives in the National Gallery of Stockholm.  This commission which represented Rembrandt’s largest historical painting came his way only after the original painter appointed to decorate the new Amsterdam Town Hall  Govaert Flinck,  previously Rembrandt’s pupil, died with his boots on. The stylistic difference between the Conspiracy of the Batavians and the academic manner of Govaert Flinck,  Jacob Jordaens, and others working simultaneously in the town hall created an institutional conflict leading, after some months hanging in-situ, to the large Rembrandt canvas being returned permanently to the artist’s studio.

Rembrandt, in the later years of his life, continued to paint speculative canvases and self-portraits besides receiving commissions, indirectly, thanks to a Roman-Netherlands version of Chapter 11 bankruptcy code. However, these were private assignments from individuals who appreciated the effect produced by his heavy impasto style. Paint heavily applied to canvas found little favour in European painting  after the death of the artist. The technique was revised in the mid-1860s, however, by Adolphe Monticelli the Marseilles painter.  Subsequently, the artist’s admirer, Vincent Van Gogh, promoted the style in a monograph on Monticelli that he and his brother published in 1890.

The Louvre was converted into a museum open to the public at large during the French Revolution. From 1793 onwards art lovers could view the now public collection three days a week. The Italian school of painting got a boost with the wholesale sacking of churches and palaces by Dominique  Vivant Denon during Napoleons Italian campaign from 1796 onwards. His reward was to become the Louvre’s first professional director in 1804.

Nike of Samothrace, c.200-180 B.C. Paris, Louvre 
The classical Greek figure Nike, formed part of a complex sculptural structure, part of a lost altarpiece. The windswept Greek goddess of Victory was positioned on a sculpted stone ship’s prow, her drapery blown against her body by the force of the wind and rain. Today the Victory of Samothrace dominates the 1850s Escalier Daru in the Louvre. French consul on the Greek island of Samothrace, Charles Champoiseau, made the discovery in 1863. Continuing a, by then consolidated tradition, he shipped it to France to the permanent irritation of residents of the Aegean island who would like it returned.

An extended version of this article can be found on the Art Monte-Carlo Blogs page.

If you need an appraisal of your old painting, contact Matthew Moss at Free Paintings Evaluation.

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