• France, Private Collection.
So much Power has Art, and so much Perspective
Which lends your pictures its fleeting beauty,
Through its sweet enchantment and secret charms,
Coloring, approaching, distancing objects,
Embellishes countryside with its brilliant prestige,
Fills valleys here, mountains there,
Disguises objects, distances, place,
And, in order to charm even more, imposes them on our gaze!
Jacques Delille, Les Jardins, Paris, 1801, Song III.
Throughout Jean-Thomas Thibault’s entire career, perspective, its theory and practice, formed a living link between painting and architecture, two disciplines which he exercised with the same passion.
A joiner’s son, Thibault was placed at a young age in the Royal Free Drawing School which Jean-Jacques Bachelier had just opened in Paris. Noticing his talent, Jean-Baptiste André, the Prince of Conti’s architect, engaged the young artist as a draughtsman to assist in the construction site of the Château of Isle-Adam. After work, Thibault followed drawing and architecture courses which were offered there by Pierre Panseron, Inspector of Works. An infallible friendship formed between artist and his two school fellows, Nicolas Louis Durand and Pierre Fontaine. In 1827, at the request of Thibault’s nieces, Fontaine wrote a biographical note on his pal in which he recalled how successful with the prince and other collectors were his views
“drawn with perfect dexterity, and which evoked in the most agreeable way the finesse of charming views by Israël Sylvestre, Leclerc’s precision, and Callot’s skill.”
Having passed the examination for the Architecture Academy in 1780 and after having worked for Richard Mique at Versailles, Thibault entered Etienne-Louis Boullée’s studio. Without attempting the Prix de Rome, he went on his own to Italy where he practiced, according to Fontaine, “alternately and always successfully Painting and Architecture.” Shortened by the Revolution, his transalpine travels only lasted four years, from 1786 to 1790, but the artist returned marked by the discovery of antique edifices and Italy’s beautiful light. With Percier and Fontaine, he was one of the founding members of the group of duodi, twelve Parisian artists – architects like Dufour and Callet, as well as painters such as Morel d’Arleux and Guillon-Lethière – who became acquainted in Rome and met once a month starting in 1798.
As soon as he returned to Paris, Thibault became known both for his architectural drawings in oil and in watercolor. His views of Roman monuments, basilica interiors, and caprices in large formats and with rare attention to minute details, were ardently sought. Furthermore, he teamed up with Durand for several projects awarded through State competitions. In 1804, Louis Bonaparte called on them to transform his Château of Saint-Leu and his Parisian mansion. Thibault subsequently was charged with finishing the Château of the Petite Malmaison for Empress Josephine, decorating the Elysée Palace, and that of Neuilly, and then with restoring the Palace of The Hague and Amsterdam City Hall.
A member of the Architectural Section of the Institute in 1818, Thibault was appointed the following year to replace Valenciennes as Professor of Perspective at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His course there became the basis of his treatise, Application of Linear Perspective to the Arts of Drawing, published after the artist’s death by his student Chapuis and his nieces.
Thibault’s Perspective Method
As opposed to other perspective methods, Thibault’s work is primarily a collection of views "of sites embellished by the most beautiful buildings in Italy" (Chapuis) which reveal their mathematical structure. Without losing any of its rigor, the architect-artist’s scientific demonstration is stamped with memories of Italy and the attentive study of the great classical landscape painters such as Poussin, and especially the three French masters of architectural views cited by Fontaine and whose works Thibault collected: Israël Sylvestre, Sebastien Leclerd, and Jacques Callot. In each plate, the abstract schemas are systematically subordinate to real or imaginary landscapes of Rome, perfectly finished and enlivened, and many inspired by the author’s delicate watercolors.
The Walls of Rome, one of the drawings we present here, can be recognized in Plate 37 which illustrates a course in shadows and and is lightly reworked. The scene is dominated by a massive construction of superimposed arcades which is reminiscent of Hadrian’s Wall with its square towers and arches on the façade turned toward the city, but also of the Aqua Claudia aqueduct which rests on this wall near the Porta Maggiore. The artist brings his architectural caprice to life by multiplying details handled with remarkable precision: wild vegetation invading the ruins, Cyprus and parasol pine trees, the stony shoulders of the path, bricks laid bare by fallen render, ripples of water in the sluice. More than simple human figures, the figures narrate a genuine story: a Roman kneels before an oratory, while a group of street musicians interrupt the dance to give information to a passerby under the curious gaze of two foreign strangers recognizable by their cloaks. Skillfully using the whiteness of the paper, the draughtsman has flooded the landscape with a warm evening light which fuses the ruins and Nature by draping them in the same faded dominantly brown shades and reinforcing the contrast between the majestic severity of the buildings and the picturesque Roman people.
With Thibault, this automnal hue is that of ancient Rome and its past grandeur. It can always be found in his Italian views, whether they are real, idealized as in The Walls of Rome, or dreamt, as in this “conjecture on the route of the ancient Romans” which we also present. Dated 1813, this large composition belongs to a period when the artist devoted himself entirely to drawing while exploring all of the complexity of perspective. He reveals here his perfect understanding of geometric rules, his virtuoso handling of watercolor, and also his talents as an architect, because he recreates, without any pretence of archaeological exactitude, the ancient buildings which have disappeared. Most, in fact, come out of his imagination, and only a few are rooted in ancient works, such as the spectacular Septizodium erected by Septimus Severus at the foot of Mont Palatine and razed at the Renaissance, or the aqueduct of Nero which can be recognized in the distance.
Thibault situates the scene at the entrance to the gates of Rome, along a large road, place for traditional sepulchers for the Romans where steles, columbaria, mausolea, and statues are raised. Nonetheless, as a reminder that this still intact magnificence is perishable, a funerary cortege makes its way among the tombs preceded by a crier who summons pilgrims and inhabitants of Rome. The work is instilled with a poetic ambiance and invites contemplation. As for a young woman holding the urn of her spouse, she seems to personify this eternal city so dear to the draughtsman, so resplendently beautiful under a limpid sky and lasting through the centuries in dulled marbles, worn cobblestones, and the light amber foliage of the trees.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Pierre François Léonard FONTAINE, "Notice sur J. T. Thibault," Jean-Thomas Thibault, Application de la perspective linéaire aux arts du dessin, Paris, J. Renouard, 1827, pp. IX-XV.
Jean-Philippe GARRIC, Recueils d’Italie : les modèles italiens dans les livres d’architecture français, Sprimont, Mardaga, 2004.