• Artist’s collection, Antwerp (Stamp of succession with the artist’s initials lower left, Lugt 1881).
• France, Private Collection.
Matthieu van Bree’s father was a decorator-painter and painting restorer. Noticing his two sons’ talents, he entrusted them to the Antwerp Academy. Mathieu followed the teaching of the landscape and genre painters Petrus Johan van Regemorter and Guillaume Schaeken. He showed himself to be so skillful that he was appointed Assistant Professor to the Academy by 1794 and could open his own studio. Resolutely Neoclassical, fascinated by the new orientation which David imprinted on French art, Van Bree took advantage of the annexation of the Austrian Low Countries by France to leave in 1796 to perfect his training in Paris under François-André Vincent. Contact with the master and the Davidiens led to the refinement of his style. In 1797, six years after the suppression of the Academy, Van Bree’s Death of Cato in Utica won second prize in the barely reinstated Prix de Rome competition.
Having requested to see the winning paintings from the general competition, Josephine particularly admired Van Bree’s work and commissioned a few paintings from him for her residences, as well as his help in constituting a collection of Flemish paintings. The artist’s Parisian success also won him the affection of Charles Joseph Fortuné d’Herbouville, who was appointed by Bonaparte in 1799 to be Prefect of the Département des Deux-Nèthes, of which Antwerp was the capital. Concerned with developing commerce and the sciences, but also conscious of the artistic fame of the city he administered, Herbourville played a primordial role in reorganizing the Academy, renamed Special School for Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. In 1801, thanks to Herbourville’s intervention, the municipality of Antwerp solicited Van Bree for a large canvas to the glory of Bonaparte and republican renewal, as it considered he was the only one able to unite “the beautiful style of the new French School [and] Flemish color” in his compositions.
Two years later, surrounded by other recent works by Antwerp artists, the imposing finished painting was exhibited during a grand salon organized for the official visit of the First Consul on July 18th, 1803. In order to allow an easier reading of his complex program, the painter wrote a short explanatory text which was printed in Paris.
Although the work is lost today, this brochure, as well as a drawing conserved in the Stedelijk Prentenkabinet in the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, and the sheet which we present and which concerns only the central part makes it possible to imagine the ambitious composition. Bonaparte is standing in the center, the sword and scale in his right hand (missing from our drawing), the left arm holding a rectangular Roman shield – (scutum which Van Bree identifies by the Greek “Aegis”) - stretched flat over the heads of several female allegories.
Behind the First Consul stands Minerva: larger than the other figures to signal her power, she symbolizes France. The goddess poses her right hand on Bonaparte’s shoulder, while with her left, “she shades his forehead with a laurel crown.” In the Antwerp drawing, Minerva holds two crowns: the second, with stars, consecrates his immortality. Near the Consul are grouped several allegories seeking his protection: Innocence clinging to his torso, Religion gratefully on her knees, Justice held up by a winged Virtue (a putto holds her mirror) and who stretches her arms towards the attributes which Bonaparte returns to her, Painting recognizable by her palette, and Sculpture who is busy sculpting a bust of the Head of State “destined to transmit the Consul’s features to the most distant posterity.”
If all of these more or less conform to traditional iconology, the depiction of Nature is surprising. Van Bree depicts her with four breasts and several children: three on our sheet and four on the one in Antwerp. The archivist Armand-Gaston Camus who accompanied Bonaparte in 1803 and wrote a two volume description of the new Départements in the North, didn’t hide his disapproval, in spite of the painter’s explanations that “the Egyptians painted Nature with the symbol of a woman whose body was almost entirely covered with breasts.” In this “tender mother…surrounded by four children, to indicate the four seasons, which she nurses successively,” Camus only saw a deformity which clashed too much with the gracious Allegories. In reality, only the four putti-seasons seem to have been the artist’s invention. As for Nature, the image of a nude woman with several breasts had been used since the Renaissance: it can be found, for example, in the works of Maerten Van Heemskerck and of Gabriel de Saint-Aubin.
The absence of the fourth child and the attributes of Justice, as well as Religion’s vase of incense set on the ground and deleted from the Antwerp drawing confirm the anteriority of our drawing. Handled entirely in terms of volume in the style of a high relief, it is primarily concerned with the chiaroscuro. On the contrary, the Antwerp drawing, which is linear and descriptive, clearly enunciates the central group and inscribes it in a vaster composition with the trio formed by Ceres, Peace, and Mercury seated on the anchor of Hope, the gods of Olympus in the clouds, Fame, the sun’s chariot, and on the right, rejoicing crowds from Antwerp. Here, however, the line is dry and descriptive, whereas in our drawing, line is more enthusiastic and livelier.
Bonaparte’s benevolent reception of Van Bree’s allegory inspired Josephine to commission an immense composition from the painter commemorating their entry into Antwerp and bringing together almost two hundred portraits of eminent individuals from France and Antwerp to be done from life (oil on canvas, 372 x 610 cm. / 12 ft 2 7/16 in. x 20 ft. Versailles, inv. MV 1501). Before beginning his work and under the pretext of the fourth anniversary of Brumaire 18, the artist offered Josephine another allegorical composition, France Threatened by England, current location unknown. The following year, while Herbouville was appointing him First Professor at the re-established Antwerp Academy, Van Bree gave his native town a canvas entitled France Making the Scheldt Governable, his last documented allegory. Its dimensions were so large that it was not possible to exhibit it at the Salon of 1805. Retouched in 1815 to suppress the figures of Napoleon and Josephine, the canvas did not survive the tumult of history.
Our drawing is thus a rare piece of evidence of the grandiloquent allegorical compositions typical of the First Republic and the years of the Consulate. Heirs to a symbolic language from the Ancien Regime, and despite their undeniable success, they were soon supplanted by historical subjects even in Van Bree’s work.
General Literature (Unpublished Work)
Denis COEKELBERGHS, Pierre LOZE, 1770-1830: Autour du néo-classicisme en Belgique, exh. cat. Ixelles, Communal Museum, 1986, p. 158, under cat. 118.