National Gallery of Australia | Audio Tour | French Painting


Audio guide to works from the NGA exhibition French Paintings from the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, shown at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 7 November 2003 – 15 February 2004


  • Jean Louis DEMARNE, A Ferry and Boats on a Canal [Bac et barques sur un canal] c.1800-1815,

    Jean Louis DEMARNE, A Ferry and Boats on a Canal [Bac et barques sur un canal] c.1800-1815,

    26/11/2007 Duración: 45s

    Jean-Louis Demarne’s career was not that of a powerful Academician. He was instead a painter who actively sought out and capitalised on the taste of middle-class collectors. Influenced by the highly finished landscapes and genre scenes of Dutch painters currently in vogue among Parisian collectors, Demarne’s landscapes and genre scenes found an eager audience in France and abroad. A Ferry and Boats on a Canal is an excellent example of Demarne’s picturesque depictions of everyday rural life. It uses the compositional convention of a central vanishing point that became something of a trademark for the painter. The landscape itself is quite generic, it could be Holland, Flanders or Northern France. Demarne is an important example of a commercially-minded artist who generally resisted participation in contemporary politics in favour of the private patronage of the burgeoning middle class.

  • Jacques-Louis DAVID, Portrait of Alphonse Leroy [Portrait d’Alphonse Leroy] c.1783

    Jacques-Louis DAVID, Portrait of Alphonse Leroy [Portrait d’Alphonse Leroy] c.1783

    26/11/2007 Duración: 01min

    Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of Alphonse Leroy is widely recognised as among the painter’s greatest portraits. In its sobriety, its scientific attention to surface effects and details, and its effort to produce an image of its sitter as psychologically complex, it forms a direct line to his many later, exceptional depictions of Napoleon Bonaparte. David’s portrait of Leroy says as much about the social identity of the figure of the artist as it does about its subject. In his sparsely furnished study, wearing a turban, and taking notes from his copy of Hippocrates’ The Diseases of Women, the gynaecologist is seen as something of an ascetic genius. So, in turn, is the artist; he is, as the contemporary definition of genius asserted, one gifted with powers of close observation and the ability to imitate nature above those of ordinary men and women.

  • Simon VOUET, Allegory of Prudence [Allégorie de la Prudence] c.1645

    Simon VOUET, Allegory of Prudence [Allégorie de la Prudence] c.1645

    26/11/2007 Duración: 01min

    Simon Vouet’s Allegory of Prudence is one of the Musée Fabre’s most significant paintings. It is remarkable as much for its formal bravado – its contorted arabesque lines, its statuesque forms, its dramatic lighting effects – as for its historical importance. Allegory of Prudence was painted for the recently widowed Queen Regent, Anne of Austria, as part of a large commission to decorate the Palais Royal, Paris (1643–1647). The ambitious Regent – at the time the subject of a series of scandals, including a rumour that she had secretly married the powerful, scrupulous Cardinal Jules Mazarin – is depicted as the figure of Prudence, one of the four Cardinal Virtues from classical and religious texts. The beautiful, virtuous Regent is seen untroubled by the effects of the material world, whether the passage of time personified by the old man at her feet or politics and skulduggery, which she is literally above.

  • Nicolas POUSSIN, Venus and Adonis [Vénus et Adonis] c.1626

    Nicolas POUSSIN, Venus and Adonis [Vénus et Adonis] c.1626

    26/11/2007 Duración: 01min

    Nicolas Poussin is one of France’s greatest painters. Venus and Adonis is an important example of the mythologies he painted in Rome during the 1620s. In Rome, the artistic centre of Europe, Poussin absorbed the lessons of classical antiquity and the Italian masters. Poussin’s innovation was to merge these influences with an often astonishing realism, refined through extended on-site study of nature and the figure. Venus and Adonis presents an idyllic depiction of the ancient world. Seen at sunset, Venus and Adonis share their love in a landscape peopled with cherubim. Both landscape and figures are painted with a free and light touch. In this way, nature weaves all together: the humid haze of the Italian summer evening, the vibrant sun that dances indiscriminately over and warms foliage and bodies, and the lovers. However, scholars have determined that the original painting was cut in two, the left hand side showing a river god in a landscape is now in a private collection. This might account for the enigm

  • Sébastien BOURDON, The Lamentation [Déploration sur le Christ mort] c. 1665-1670

    Sébastien BOURDON, The Lamentation [Déploration sur le Christ mort] c. 1665-1670

    26/11/2007 Duración: 59s

    Due largely to the fact that he spent much of his adult life working outside of the country, and because of the very flexible nature of his work, which often shifted dramatically between styles and themes, Sébastien Bourdon’s work has often been ignored in France. Bourdon was, it was thought, a chameleon, whose skill was more in mimicry than innovation. But as the comprehensive exhibition of his work at the Musée Fabre in 2000 demonstrated, Bourdon’s career is now regarded somewhat differently. Painted in the last years of his life, The Lamentation brings forward many of the painter’s fine attributes: dense, clear colours, emphatic modelling of form, and a dynamic composition that crystalises a series of often competing references, including Nicolas Poussin. As Bourdon often instructed his students, great innovation could be achieved by casting one’s interests far and wide.

  • Léon BENOUVILLE, The Wrath of Achilles [La colère dAchille] 1847

    Léon BENOUVILLE, The Wrath of Achilles [La colère d'Achille] 1847

    26/11/2007 Duración: 55s

    Léon-François Bénouville's splendidly modelled figure of Achilles intrudes into the space of the viewer. He literally steps beyond the surface of the canvas. Thus, in the painting's careful attention to the human form and in the precision of its modelling of paint, it fulfils ideally the task of the painted academic figure studies required of Prix de Rome winners. Bénouville's painting of Achilles, a popular subject for nineteenth-century painters, shows the Greek hero at the moment where, after quarrelling with his leader, Agamemnon, he retreats from battle to his tent in a rage. Humiliated, Achilles refuses to continue fighting with the Greeks, who subsequently suffer a series of catastrophic defeats. As Agamemnon's envoys enter Achilles' tent, in the hope of convincing him to return to battle, Achilles springs to his feet, launching into a tirade. With a dramatic realism, Bénouville renders this precise, violent moment.

  • Achille-Etna MICHALLON, Landscape with Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos [Paysage avec Philoctète dans l’île de Lemnos] 1822

    Achille-Etna MICHALLON, Landscape with Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos [Paysage avec Philoctète dans l’île de Lemnos] 1822

    26/11/2007 Duración: 57s

    Achille-Etna Michallon was a highly ambitious prodigy, who first exhibited at the Salon at the age of fifteen. Michallon won the inaugural Grand Prix for Historical Landscape in 1817, a prize introduced with him in mind, and one he actively lobbied the recently reformed Académie to institute. Landscape with Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos is an excellent example of Michallon’s historical landscapes, which are characterised by his faithful attention to the dramatic conditions of the elements and panoramic views, and often include isolated figures from antiquity. Michallon’s close attention to nature is apparent, but the landscape is rendered heroic. There is a Romantic passion in his depiction of the elements and of the lonely figure of Philoctetes, forced to eke out a miserable existence in the face of that violence. Thus, Michallon’s landscape suggests both the naturalism of his best student, Camille Corot, and nostalgia for the grandeur and glory of pre-Revolutionary classicism.

  • Eugène ISABEY, Storm with a Shipwreck [La tempête, naufrage] 1835

    Eugène ISABEY, Storm with a Shipwreck [La tempête, naufrage] 1835

    26/11/2007 Duración: 44s

    Eugène Isabey was a deeply Romantic painter. His work during the 1820s and 1830s is characterised by a concern with the unpredictable nature of the elements, the response of the individual to nature, and a refined, vigorous application of paint that emphasised the artist’s hand. Storm with a Shipwreck is one of Isabey’s key Romantic seascapes. He depicts the sea as an abstract force that has the power to annihilate man and his work – our attention is drawn to the corpse of a sailor and part of the wreck of his ship in the lower corner. The violent sea and clouds and the dark, ominous rocky outcrop suggest a place of absolute danger. In this way, Isabey invokes the sublime, which was so closely associated with the sea: the sea as a space of imminent threat and an incomprehensible infinitude. Isabey’s application of paint matches the subject of work; each is as theatricalised and energetic as the other.

  • Paul GUIGOU, Provençal Landscape [Paysage provençal] 1869

    Paul GUIGOU, Provençal Landscape [Paysage provençal] 1869

    26/11/2007 Duración: 47s

    Paul Guigou regularly painted the scenery of Provence in southern France, the region of his birth. This small landscape is typical of his work and captures the crisp light of the region, with its strong jewel-like colours. The painting’s raised point of view gives a sense of the emptiness of Provence. The composition is dominated by the expanse of the land and the sky, while the near perfect reflections on the river as it winds its way under the rustic stone bridge provide another focal point. Guigou came from a wealthy family and developed an early interest in landscape painting. He started his working life as a notary’s clerk but dedicated himself to painting full-time in 1862. In Paris he was friendly with many of the Impressionist group, including Frédéric Bazille, Alfred Sisley and Claude Monet. Even so, Guigou remained true to his own vision and went unnoticed at the Salon until after his death.

  • Edgar DEGAS, A Nanny in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris [La nourrice du jardin du Luxembourg] c.1875

    Edgar DEGAS, A Nanny in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris [La nourrice du jardin du Luxembourg] c.1875

    26/11/2007 Duración: 01min

    In this important painting, Edgar Degas represents the city in a theatrical way. His nanny and young child sit on a stage, with Paris’ Luxembourg Garden dotted with strollers – those flashes of pink, ochre, black and white – as a backdrop. The painting marks the changing architectural and social conditions of Parisian life, as the city’s network of old streets and alleys was cleared to make room for the wide, sweeping boulevards (for which the city is now famous) and a series of central points of focus. The city became, as the strollers indicate, a space of leisure and spectacle: of looking and of being seen. But as with his images of laundresses, prostitutes and ballet dancers, Degas’s painting also pays attention to the contemporary conditions of women’s labour. The nursing industry underwent a boom in Paris in the 1870s, and was regulated in 1874 with a series of financial and sanitary restrictions. The nanny – already the subject of intense scrutiny within the space of the family – was now squarely under

  • Joseph-Désiré COURT, Woman Lying on a Divan [Femme à mi-corps, couchée sur un divan] 1829

    Joseph-Désiré COURT, Woman Lying on a Divan [Femme à mi-corps, couchée sur un divan] 1829

    26/11/2007 Duración: 01min

    Joseph-Désiré Court was trained as a history painter and portraitist. He was strongly in demand as a portrait painter in aristocratic circles and at court, especially for his paintings that placed their subject in a fantastical scene. This beautiful portrait is one of Court’s most personal. Indeed, it is most likely a painting of the artist’s wife. It is striking for the intimacy between painter and subject, which comes across in the directness of the gaze between them. The subject’s hair falls loosely from her face, her left hand holding the fabric that envelops her body. This seemingly casual pose gives a clear significance to the plain gold ring on her finger, and is balanced by the solid clear colours of the different fabrics that frame the sitter and emphasise the whiteness of her skin.

  • Gustave COURBET, The Beach at Palavas [Le bord de mer à Palavas] 1854

    Gustave COURBET, The Beach at Palavas [Le bord de mer à Palavas] 1854

    26/11/2007 Duración: 41s

    Gustave Courbet visited Alfred Bruyas in Montpellier in the summer of 1854 and during his stay went to the seaside town of Palavas, seeing the sea for possibly the first time in his life. Courbet’s independence and strength comes through in this dramatic painting, a study of flatness and light evocative of an infinite sense of space. Dominated by the line of the horizon that divides the work in half, the heavy paint builds up the surface of the shore and gives depth to the calm sea as it stretches to the distance. Perched on a rocky outcrop the single figure of a man raises his hat, as if in a greeting or celebration of the sea. This figure may be Courbet or perhaps Bruyas, and the peculiar gesture perhaps reflects the excitement of the painter’s own experience of what was for him a novel landscape.

  • Gustave COURBET, The Meeting or Good Day, Monsieur Courbet [La rencontre ou Bonjour Monsieur Courbet] 1854

    Gustave COURBET, The Meeting or Good Day, Monsieur Courbet [La rencontre ou Bonjour Monsieur Courbet] 1854

    26/11/2007 Duración: 59s

    One of Gustave Courbet’s most significant canvases, Good Day, Monsieur Courbet depicts a chance meeting of the painter, his patron Alfred Bruyas and Bruyas’s servant Calas, on a road outside Montpellier. The painting teases the often fraught relationship of painter and private patron. Bruyas had trained as a painter, but poor health kept him from the practice. It is possible that Bruyas-the-patron represented a surrogate Bruyas-the-painter. In courting the country’s most astute and critically-engaged contemporary painter, Bruyas made claims to the progress of contemporary painting. The painting thus marks in the most compelling way the ambition of the collector, keen to insert his own name, taste and generosity into the history of painting. Courbet was acutely aware of this relationship. Note the way in which only Courbet stands on the earth; neither the deferential Bruyas nor Calas cast a shadow, as if only the painter, as labourer, is of this earth.

  • Jean-Baptiste-Camille COROT, Fishing with Nets [La pêche à lépervier] 1847

    Jean-Baptiste-Camille COROT, Fishing with Nets [La pêche à l'épervier] 1847

    26/11/2007 Duración: 01min

    Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot trained in the Neo-classical tradition of painting, and progressively developed a highly personal vision of landscape. His stay in Italy (1825–1828) was a formative experience, since it encouraged him to study nature in the open air. In this delicate painting from the Salon of 1847, Corot has created a carefully balanced composition; the shapes of the trees leaning across the space and the surface of the river lead the eye into the painting. The work depicts the unchanged activity of fishing, yet transforms the scene into an idyllic image that emphasises the eternal harmonies between man and nature. The work is imbued with softness through the use of tone, reflection and its depiction of the sky. Corot’s influence on later painters was significant, particularly amongst the Impressionists; he was, importantly, a teacher of Berthe Morisot.

  • Alexandre CABANEL, Albaydé 1848

    Alexandre CABANEL, Albaydé 1848

    26/11/2007 Duración: 01min

    Its pristine finish, sharp lines and sober palette place Alexandre Cabanel’s Albaydé at the heart of academic excellence. Indeed, the Montpellier-born Cabanel – a Prix de Rome winner in 1845 – was one of the last ardent academicians, determined to maintain the Académie’s strictures and hierarchies in the face of the radical challenges to it posed by, among others, Gustave Courbet. The subject is drawn from Victor Hugo’s Orientalist poem ‘Fragments of a Serpent’, where the poet lusts for ‘the lovely doe-like eyes of Albaydé’. In a manner that owes much to Ingres’s languid nudes, Cabanel has depicted the lethargic figure of Albaydé as an object of visual pleasure, and also as an allegory. Albaydé was prepared as part of a triptych, the theme of which was the precariousness of the passage from youth to adulthood. Albaydé represented youthful innocence gone askew. It is compelling that she is depicted as a seductive, if dishevelled Oriental courtesan, in a space suggestive of the Islamic lounge, a harem and an o

  • Frédéric BAZILLE, The Ramparts, Aigues-Mortes [Les remparts d’Aigues-Mortes] 1867

    Frédéric BAZILLE, The Ramparts, Aigues-Mortes [Les remparts d’Aigues-Mortes] 1867

    26/11/2007 Duración: 54s

    Frédéric Bazille was a friend of Alfred Bruyas and became an important early member of the Impressionist movement in Paris, where he was associated with August Renoir, Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley among others. Bazille painted at least three different views of Aigues-Mortes near Montpellier, experimenting with different compositions and formats. While many of his early works have been lost, this rare early landscape is marked by the characteristics of the Provençal landscape tradition, including the work of Paul Guigou. The scene stretches with clarity and precision from a low point of view to great effect, the marshy foreground opening up to the fortified port town. The painting captures the glorious colours typical of the region and evokes the sensation of the different surfaces by various techniques. The painting also makes clear Bazille’s interest in using the effects of light on surfaces as a means of defining mass and form.

  • François-André VINCENT, Belisarius [Bélisaire] 1776

    François-André VINCENT, Belisarius [Bélisaire] 1776

    26/11/2007 Duración: 01min

    The central theme of François-André Vincent’s moving painting Belisarius is tolerance. The subject of the work is the illustrious Roman general who, according to legend, was wrongly accused of conspiracy against the emperor Justinian, blinded and forced to lead an itinerant life as a beggar. This was a popular subject at the time among both painters and writers. The painting records the moment when the pitiable Belisarius is recognised by one of his former soldiers. The soldier’s shame at finding himself in the presence of the maligned general is palpable. Through this painting Vincent sought to propagate tolerance and unity, during a period of intense political and social upheaval shortly before the outbreak of the Revolution of 1789.

  • Joseph-Marie VIEN, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still [Josué arrêtant le soleil] 1742-1743

    Joseph-Marie VIEN, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still [Josué arrêtant le soleil] 1742-1743

    26/11/2007 Duración: 51s

    Joseph-Marie Vien presented this sketch in a six-part submission for pre-selection for the 1743 Prix de Rome. Based on the unresolved nature of the paintings, it was a surprise to many that Vien was deemed eligible for competition and eventually won the prize. While this was reflective of the declining state of the Prix, with its unfashionable privileging of history painting at the expense of the pastorals and allegories that had become fashionable, the award was prophetic. Vien would become France’s most highly awarded painter and its leading teacher, and one of the earliest exponents of the Neo-classical style. The subject of Vien’s painting suggests something of this historical context. Joshua, a disciple of Moses and his successor, leads the Israelite invasion of Canaan and the Promised Land. During a final, fraught battle for the town of Gibeon, Joshua prays for extended daylight so as to assure what would become a great victory.

  • Hubert ROBERT, The Bridge [Le pont] 1776

    Hubert ROBERT, The Bridge [Le pont] 1776

    26/11/2007 Duración: 54s

    Popularly known as ‘Robert des Ruines’, Hubert Robert built a lucrative career out of his imaginary ancient towns, cities, museums and gardens in picturesque decay. The Bridge is one such fantastical image, depicting the château in Dieppe populated by figures going about their everyday lives – a woman bathing, men herding livestock across an ancient, imaginary bridge. Robert’s work was deeply influenced by his time in Rome during the 1750s to 1760s, a place he described as a city of ruins and of everyday life, where decaying mementoes of history (the Forum, the Colosseum) and contemporary life rubbed shoulders. Rome was also in the middle of an archaeological fever, spurred in part by the discovery of the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, sites Robert visited in 1760. The painting represents a memento mori; a reminder, as one critic noted at the time, that everything must die.

  • Jean RAOUX, Dido and Aeneas [Didon et Enée] c.1730

    Jean RAOUX, Dido and Aeneas [Didon et Enée] c.1730

    26/11/2007 Duración: 59s

    A winner of the Prix de Rome in 1704, Jean Raoux became famous for his depictions of Vestal Virgins. These paintings described the virtues of chastity and maidenhood, an image he often contrasted with that of the modern bourgeois women, whose excesses and narcissism were at odds with moral virtue. Raoux’s reputation became such that the philosopher Voltaire described him as the equal of the great Dutch painter Rembrandt. Dido and Aeneas suggests Raoux’s interest in Rembrandt and other Northern European painters. Note the attention paid to particular surfaces, especially the exquisite rendering of the satin (an effect for which Raoux was well known), and its broad range of lights and darks. These influences are distilled with Raoux’s observations of Italian painting, made while resident in Rome, where he studied and copied the finest moments of classical antiquity and Renaissance painting. The scene itself, a moment from Virgil’s account of the fateful love of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and the founder of R

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