France, Private Collection
The subject is drawn from The Book of Exodus (EX 32, 1-8). While Moses was on Mount Sinai conferring with God who gave him the Tablets of the Law, his people in despair asked Aaron to guide them and tell them what or whom they should adore. Aaron asked them to melt their jewelry so as to make an idol in the image of Apis, the Egyptian god: a golden calf.
On the left, Aaron can be distinguished in a pink robe and beige cloak, a resigned spectator to the idolatry of the Hebrews. In the background, Moses descends the mountain brandishing the Tablets of the Law, ready to smash them. The dark clouds recall the divine presence even as they suggest celestial rage communicated by the chosen spokesman.
This composition was known by another version on canvas and in a slightly larger format which was sold in Rome in 1984. A few minor variations concerned mainly the dancer’s drapery and the young idolater stretched on the ground. This painting bore an attribution to Jacques Stella which seems to have aimed to anchor it among the followers of Nicolas Poussin, the artist who dominated iconography of the subject, especially through the version he gave to Amadeo dal Pozzo in 1633-1635. Our artist seems to have known it: he similarly turns the subject into a sort of sacred bacchanale spread across a vast panorama while elaborating the various poses demonstrating adoration. The size of the Golden Calf, although smaller than in Poussin, may have come from another famous example, that of Raphael in the Vatican Loggia.
Certain other details, such as the young woman with a child pointing at the statue or the man prostrated on the ground with his hands in prayer, could have been derived from an engraved composition by François de Poilly said to be after Poussin. While Stella indeed produced paintings in a similar format, neither the physical types nor the avowed debt to Poussin’s model add up. Our artist belonged to a later generation in this tradition, apparently in the context of the Academy and royal construction sites: the composition for dal Pozzo was copied by Pierre de Sève during the project for the tapestries on the History of Moses after Poussin, begun in 1683; Poilly’s engraving after the other version probably transcribed a painting already in France. This context and stylistic evidence lead us to Alexandre Ubelesqui.
Of Polish origins and born in Paris, Alexandre – his first name served very early in place of a family name – figures among Le Brun’s students, notably in the context of the Academy where he attended the school from 1669. He participated in the competition for the Prix de Rome in 1671 and 1672, and won the second year.
A pensioner in Rome from many years, he applied to the Academy after his return to Paris in 1679. He was received in 1682 and became a professor in 1695. When he married in 1681, Noël Coypel, who had directed the French Academy in Rome from 1672 to 1675, figured among the witnesses as a friend, as did his son Antoine Coypel. Apparently friends with Claude II Audran, Antoine Stella, and Louis Licherie, Ubelesqui worked for the Abbot Desmoulins, Curé of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, parish of the Louvre. He produced two “Mays” – the annual altarpiece offered by the Goldsmiths Guild to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris every May – in 1681, (lost) and 1791 (Louvre); participated in the series of tapestry cartoons on Fables, partially after Raphael, commissioned in 1684 for an original Dance of a Nymph and a Satyr (Arras, Museum of Fine Arts); painted a Marriage of the Virgin for Notre Dame of Saint-Cyr, among other religious commissions. He participated in Salons from 1699 to 1704, namely for musical subjects. For the Versailles Menagerie, he produced two historical subjects, Minerva and Arachne (Fontainebleau Palace). In 17711, he again participated in a royal commission celebrating the recent history of Louis XIV with a sketch of a Lit de Justice, the king presiding over the court: another version of Tapestry of the History of the King was to be produced, but it was never fully completed. Ubelesqui’s subject in particular was never executed.
The Arras cartoon gives a first clear point of comparison with the figure of the young dancing woman, which is simply reversed in her very singular pose, her face turned towards the spectator. She also embodies the elongated canon of proportions which Ubelesqui liked and which could be found in Noël Coypel’s work more than in Le Brun. The same holds for her drapery of smooth areas bounded with strong sculpted bulges deliberately distributed in waves.
As his paintings remain rare, one has to look at drawings whose diversity of styles and techniques can be disconcerting. Their association is based on the inscriptions they bear, Alexandre or de Mr Alexandre. Critical analysis is still possible with a concern to derive consistencies which indicate his hand. One can do this especially with incontestable folios, such as that which was preparatory to the 1692 “May.”
Besides the drapery work and proportions already mentioned, Ubelesqui favored theatrical layouts gathering the figures together or placing them on diagonals in a manner which recalls Coypel and beyond that, Charles Errard. The comparison is also valid for the folio in the Bonnat Museum showing Christ and Zacchaeus in a much fuller circle with much rounder forms. He plays with the contrast between emphatic poses, with arms wide open or thrust forward, and others closed, as can be seen in the folio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts showing a Concert Champetre; a musical theme which the artist seems to have freely developed, if we go by his contributions to the Salons of 1699 and 1704. The choppier handling of this drawing can be compared with a painting in Vannes signed and dated 1702, a Sermon of Saint François-Xavier in poor condition which is close to a horizontal version conserved in Germany (Ludwigsburg Schloss). That this composition is a clear homage to Claude II Audran’s Feeding the Multitude nearly twenty years earlier for the Chartreux does not facilitate perception of his evolution.
Nonetheless, it is conceivable that this manner of rupturing the roundness or, at least, past suppleness, following Jouvenet’s example, might have been the dawn of a new period in his career. If this still very schematic proposition is true, then our painting has to be placed in an intermediary phase, probably after the May of 1691 but before the Vannes picture. It is to be noted in passing that it was in 1700-1701 that the artist depicted another episode in the History of Moses for Meudon, Moses and the Daughters of Jethro, whose current location unfortunately is unknown.
In more than one respect, one can see that the reappearance of this painting is precious. Its rather rare support – paper laid down on canvas – indicates preparation for what was probably a cabinet painting. In all likelihood, the latter is the slightly larger painting on canvas sold in Rome, which more precisely was presumably a ricordo. The Poussinist inspiration is evident and takes the form of fidelity to Le Brun and Noël Coypel, two fierce partisans of drawing as opposed to color. More influential perhaps than the paintings by Poussin on the subject, it is the display of the expression of the Passions to which Ubelesqui adheres, as seen in The Striking of the Rock and as the painter explained them in a letter to Jacques Stella.
He sets up several incidents: the Hebrews dining, others in adoration, more around Aaron as simple spectators. A hierarchy of perception is established through the use of light and the scenes are linked by the generally circular movement punctuated by the dancer. Pentimenti here and there, emblematic of ultimate hesitations, barely disturb the brilliant handling which is worthy of a miniaturist in certain places, and evokes Dughet in the more vaporous landscape. If the demonstration is still done on paper, the painter’s talent shines in this work, as much by its technique as by the skillful refined expression.