· France, Private Collection.
The first Carolingian to mount the throne and father of Charlemagne, Pepin the Short only left a very fragmentary and imprecise image of himself. Thus, in the course of time, anecdotes and legends filled this regrettable gap. One of the most popular legends is due to Notker de Saint-Gall who, in his Gest Karoli Imperatoris written at the end of the 9th century, told of Pepin’s exploit in the arenas at Ferrière en Gâtinais (2.15-16). In 752, that is more than a century earlier, Pepin supposedly ordered a combat between an immense bull and a ferocious lion. The wild beast lunged on the bull and grabbed him by the neck. The king then called upon his vassals to separate the animals, but they were all frozen in fear, and said no man could do that. Wherefore Pepin descended into the arena and single-handedly cut off the head of the lion and that of the bull. Then he sat back down and said, “Doesn’t it seem to you that I could be your lord? Haven’t you heard of what little David did to the immense Goliath, or the very small Alexander [the Great] to his valiant knights?” Thus he proved that his shortness – the source of his nickname and object of raillery, was in no way a weakness.
The motif of Pepin slaying the lion certainly had some popularity in Medieval France, especially during the period of manuscript illumination where it appeared from time to time. However it consisted of the legend recounted by Adenet le Roi in the 13th century of a lion who escaped from a cage in the Palace and was killed by Pepin who was still a prince. It was not until 1601 with Henri Canisius’ publication of the work of Notker de Saint-Gall that the anecdote of the arenas became famous; in the 19th century, it became an Epinal image.
During the Enlightenment, the first to illustrate the lion and bull episode seems to have been François Boucher. It was a small vignette in the fourth edition of the Histoire de France depuis l’établissement de la Monarchie française (The History of France since the Monarchy was Established) by Father Gabriel Daniel which appeared in 1729. Although the anecdote is found at the very end of the long quite scholarly chapter consecrated to Pepin, its theatricality in the antique style made it a choice subject for an illustration. Moreover preferring the “picturesque to conventions,” Boucher handled the legend like a mythological episode and showed the King of the Franks beardless and clothed as a Roman.
Géraud Vidal, engraver and Parisian publisher established on Rue de la Harpe, drew on subjects from Father Gabriel for his very pedagogical series of Tableaux des Français (Pictures of the French) published in 1789-1790. The Pictures were to celebrate grand moments in the national past as the Figures de l’Histoire de France (Figures from French History) by Moreau the Younger published starting in 1779 and interrupted by the Revolution, and later, Les Illustres Français (The Illustrious French) by Nicolas Ponce (1790-1816). Each plate was accompanied by a short explanation, but the presentation, initially intended to be uniform, had to be adapted to the hazards of history: the fleur de lys globe at the top of the frame in the first plates was subsequently replaced by a sun.
In order to speed up his undertaking, Vidal turned to diverse engravers and draughtsmen, including the indispensable Clément-Pierre Marillier. Originally from Dijon, he studied painting in Paris under Noël Hallé, but preferred to concentrate on illustration in order to meet his family’s needs. The accuracy of his drawing and his amiable character quickly made him– along with Charles Eisen and Hubert-François Gravelot - one of the draughtsmen most in demand by publishers for vignettes, culs-de-lampe, and illustrations of all kinds of works: poetry, novels, philosophical treatises, travel accounts, plays, and even the Sacy Bible. Critics ceaselessly praised the vivacity of his subjects, his inventive ease, and the gracefulness of his skillfully placed figures. Claude-Joseph Dorat even attributed a good part of the success of his Fables to Marillier and addressed an epistle to him:
Long live skillful interpreters!
When I’m in sorrow, you come and console me.
My animals seemed mute,
And your pencil made them speak.
What ingenious contrivances,
What delicate lines burst forth from your fingers!
The Cochins’ emulator, Gravelot’s rival,
I furnished you with a few sketches,
You transformed them into pictures.”
Marillier drew several plates for the Tableaux des Français, but only a few rare original drawings have survived, including that for The Siege of Beauvais, engraved as of 1785 (National Museum of the Château de Pau, inv. P.2004.2.2.1) and that which we present. Jean-Louis Delignon’s etching bears a long text which repeats and romanticizes Father Daniel’s account. In fact the latter had misread Notker de Saint-Gall and assures us that Pepin only killed the lion and spared the bull. An attentive reader, Marillier condensed the anecdote without omitting the circumstances or expressions, even if he transformed the arena into a sort of tilting ground depicting the short king who uses the bull’s leg as a sort of step, his cold-bloodedness, the barons’ fright despite the fact they were fully armed, the spectators’ applause, the prelates’ approval, the lion’s ferocity, the bull’s agony. A virtuoso in page headings and culs-de-lampe, the artist shows himself as ease in this grand composition with delicately shaded light effects and a pure elegant hand which inevitably disappears when transferred to etching.
General Literature (Unpublished Work)
Roger Portalis, Les Dessinateurs d’illustrations au dix-huitième siècle, Paris, 1877, vol. I, pp. 365-379.