• France, Private Collection.
The Subject of Porcia’s Courage
At the Salon of 1777, Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié presented one of two large pictures which he had just painted for Louis XV entitled Porcia’s Courage (no 11, Lille, Museum of Fine Arts, inv. P. 489). For this royal commission, the Assistant Professor at the Academy returned to the moralizing account which came from Valerius Maximus and which the Salon Livret reproduced word for word (Book II, chap. II, 15): having learned from her husband Brutus about the plan to assassinate Caesar, Porcia requested a razor, dropped it on purpose, and wounded herself. To Brutus, alerted by the servants’ cries, Porcia answered that it was not an accident, but in case the plot failed, she wanted to test her own firmness and ability to kill herself.
Revolutionary tumult caused the resurgence of Plutarch’s much more dramatic text which brought out Porcia’s determination and constancy. According to the historian, Porcia cut herself after seeing her husband preoccupied; she wished to ask his secret only after having demonstrated that a woman is capable of enduring the worst pain:
“She made the servants leave the room, took a knife, and plunged it deeply into her thigh. The blood flowed abundantly; the violent pain soon was followed by fever. Brutus, extremely worried and in tears, did not know what to think; whereas Porcia, very calmly, showed him the wound she had made, and informed him of her motive. Brutus, filled with admiration, shared the entire conspiracy plan with her, and he had no reason afterwards to repent of the trust he had for her and which she had earned so well.”
This summary of Plutarch comes from the Livret of the Salon of 1799. The picture presented under number 185 and “belonging to the artist” was the work of Jacques Lebrun. As was the case for the majority of participants in the post-revolutionary salons which now were open to all artists and no longer only to academicians, Lebrun did not give the name of his painting master, but only specified that he came from “the department of Vaucluse” and lived on the rue de la Loi (now the rue de Richelieu.) In addition to Porcia, the painter exhibited a gouache depicting Clytemnestra and two portraits: “a person writing” and one of the artist’s family (nos. 185-188).
Jacques Lebrun’s career was intimately linked to the Revolution. From his security card delivered on December 1793, we know that he was born in 1760 and arrived in Paris in 1782, years before the Revolution and during the Ancien Régime. In 1793, Lebrun figures on the List of Citizens sent to Paris by the Primary Assemblies for the National Festival of Unity and Indivisibility of the Republic on August 10th, 1793 as a representative of the township of Courthézon, in the district of Orange, county of Bouches-du-Rhone. The same year, he exhibited in the Salon for the first time. His works appeared under three numbers: A Frame containing several Miniatures ; The Death of Lucretia, which measured 195 by 130 cm. (6 ft. 4 ¾ in. x 4 ft. 3 ¾ in.) and The Hermitage inhabited by J.J. Rousseau, near Montmorency, or the Birthplace of the Nouvelle Héloïse (nos 602, 648, 649). At the following Salon, in 1795, Lebrun exhibited an allegorical drawing depicting The Law Commanding Justice to Punish the Perpetrators of the Crimes of September 2nd and 3rd, miniatures, and a portrait of Rousseau (no 307-309.) In 1796, it was a large canvas depicting Emma (Charlemagne’s Daughter) Carrying her Lover on her Shoulders (no 259), and in 1798, miniatures (no 251). Of all of these works, only a few miniature portraits still exist, one conserved in the Louvre and another in the Carnavalet Museum in Paris.
Politically very active, Lebrun was a member of the Republican Society of the Arts established to revolutionize the arts by breaking with the past. The artist gave a vibrant “Discourse pronounced on the Occasion of the Planting of the Tree of Liberty” in 1794, and a vigorous intervention during the session of April 15th, 1795 (26 germinal l’an 2), when he affirmed that landscape and flower painters could do nothing for morals and were of no use “to the people and their regeneration.” The artist’s most well-known writing is the big article which appeared in Le Moniteur Universel about the 1799 Salon. If he refrained from evoking his own works such as Porcia, Lebrun did virulently criticize the artists who were imitators or too routine, as well as the portraitists who were too numerous to his taste – only Girodet and Sablet found any grace in his eyes. Furthermore, he praised the landscapes of Valenciennes and Bertin, Boilly’s and Drolling’s genre pictures, and especially the mythological paintings of Hannequin, Gérard, Garnier, and Vernet, as well as those of Greuze which he found “remarkable in the sentiment, expression, [and] harmony which characterizes everything which flows out of his brush.”
In all probability, our sketch is either the picture presented at the Salon or at least a preparatory work. Not only does it perfectly accord with the description in the Livret, but this volition to “return the arts to their true principles” advocated by Lebrun is clearly visible. The work obviously belonged to an artist who had escaped rigorous academic schooling but was sensitive to the Neoclassical trend and the art of masters such as Greuze, Jean-Joseph Taillasson (1745-1809) and more particularly, Guillaume Guillon-Lethière (1760-1832). Nonetheless, the broad rapid brushstroke and the skillfully distributed lighting indicates a real professional.
Above all, our little picture is surprising in its eloquence and theatrical intensity. With its monumental architecture, Porcia’s room becomes like an antique temple. Here, there are no more servants, so numerous in Lépicié’s painting, but only the couple and a statue of the Tribune, Cato, who seems to encourage his daughter with his oratorical gesture. Similarly, the little scrape on her leg in the painting for Louis XV has become an open wound from which blood pours profusely.
The blood red is surprisingly echoed in Brutus’ sandals and thus anticipates his participation in Caesar’s assassination. The rest is painted in a sober pale palette varying from yellows to indigo blues, so as to concentrate more on the two protagonists’ dramatic spontaneous attitudes and faces. The husband’s severe one is manifestly drawn from Brutus in Guillon-Lethière’s sketch presented in the 1793 Salon (private collection) or from Cato in the Death of Cato of Utica painted by the same artist in 1795 (Saint Petersburg, Hermitage, inv. 1302). As for Porcia, her face resembles a mask from Greek tragedy, with no whites left in her eyes and her mouth half open.