France, private collection.
Our Adoration of the Shepherds is the first copper attributed to the versatile Thomas Blanchet from Lyon who practiced virtually every form of art from easel painting to large-scale decoration, from sculpture to architecture, and excelled in a multitude of techniques from drawing through engraving. Although unsigned, as are almost all of Blanchet’s works, our little picture which combines academic classicism with a Roman baroque style tinged with Mannerism, indubitably is by his hand which is recognizable from all others.
Attracted to sculpture at an early age and probably born in Paris in about 1614, Thomas Blanchet nonetheless left Jacques Sarrazin’s studio for that of Simon Vouet. From these two artists, as well as from study of the works of the old masters in Fontainebleau, he developed a taste for illusionistic compositions and decorative systems which combined stucco and paintings. In about 1635, he went to Rome where he lived until 1654. No extant painted works are known from this period during which he came under the influence of Poussin and Andrea Sacchi, as well as of Bernini who praised his talent, Pietro da Cortona, and Michelangelo.
His fame as a monumental painter led to his being called to Lyon in 1655 in order to decorate the new city hall. During his work for the city – as of 1675, he held the title of “Ordinary Painter of Lyon” – Blanchet developed a substantial business as a decorator, festival designer, portraitist, and architect, while also providing models for sculptors, goldsmiths, and engravers to reproduce. Received into the Academy in 1676 and participating in a few construction sites in the capital, he refused to leave Lyon which gave him more artistic freedom unfettered by classic limits imposed on painting in Paris. In 1681, he and Coysevox founded an academy of painting in Lyon which was a provincial offshoot of the Parisian institution, but which did not manage to create a school. The large decorations which brought him fame have disappeared or deteriorated so that even the name of Blanchet started to fade by the 18th century. It took until the work of Lucie Galactéros-de Boisier in the 1980’s for this artist’s oeuvre to be considered original and baroque in the best sense of the term.
Although Blanchet’s eclectic style struggles to create a perfect synthesis of often contradictory Parisian, Bellifontain, Roman and Lyonnais trends, he creates a rare dramatic intensity which constitutes the real appeal of his works. Blanchet cultivates an extensive theatrical rhetoric very similar to Cortona’s, but the developmental dynamics are often inhibited, blocked, and even ruptured. His figures, which are sometimes turbulent and sometimes inert in discordant poses, are set into poorly defined compressed spaces. The tumultuous draperies with their broad complicated folds hide the body and focus attention on hands, feet, slender toes, and faces with elongated eyes ringed with deep triangular shadows. Blanchet’s compositions depend less on the structural axes dear to classical painters than on a whole web of gazes and gestures so that each character, regardless of position or importance, becomes an inseparable link in the whole composition.
Despite its small dimensions, our Adoration of the Shepherds, imbued with a sincerity and a slightly uneasy lyricism, perfectly demonstrates this style which is specific to Blanchet. The copper seems to be a personal reflection on Poussin’s masterpiece which the artist probably saw in person during his trip to Rome and was universally known, thanks to the engraving. This reflection goes furtherer in his Adoration of the Shepherds painted by Blanchet for the Church of Saint Paul in Lyon, whereas his drawing is still conserved in the Louvre. Here, Blanchet only borrows a few details from Poussin, such as the woman bearing offerings who is absent from Biblical texts, the golden gap in the clouds in the sky, and Joseph’s face. However in place of a design cleverly constructed after Poussin, a slow progression towards the infant Jesus, tranquility and timelessness, Blanchet substitutes a strange extremely theatrical space with irregular rhythms and the impetuousness of a single moment.
The profile of Mary’s pale tragic face is at the center of the picture. The whiteness of her flesh is accentuated by that of her veil which is loose enough to reveal her neck. The red of her dress and the intense blue of the voluminous drapery wrapped around her body find no echo to balance the composition other than the purplish mountains in the background and the pinkish early morning sky. With her hands on her heart like a supplicant, Mary gazes tenderly and uneasily at her infant laying in a manger on a sparkling white sheet. Blanchet has chosen an unprecedented audacious pose in which to represent Jesus, who on account of foreshortening seems smaller than usual, fragile, and surprisingly solitary, almost abandoned. He is asleep and only the warm tint of his skin makes it possible to say that he is still alive. To Mary’s left, a shepherd’s face is hidden by her veil as he leans forward. Behind the manger, Joseph with his hands joined in prayer recalls immobile representations in Renaissance stables. On the right side of the painting figure two women with expressive gestures and two kneeling shepherds: one is young and exalted whereas the old one is serene and at peace. The grayish blues and orange of the basket carrier’s costume echo the dense clouds in the upper left with the luminous rays in which two cupids hold a phylactery with the inscription, “GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO.”
As he usually does, Blanchet compresses space and does not leave much place for his characters who are obliged to crowd together on a rocky plateau scattered with ancient ruins in front of a temple with stone columns and statues of which only the lower parts are visible. In the background, if the austere wall punctuated by towers actually bisected the Pyramid of Caius Cestius which is half-hidden here in clouds, it would evoke Aurelian’s wall and we could situate the scene in Rome rather than in Bethlehem.
This intrusion of Roman realities into a New Testament scene is not in itself sufficient for dating our copper to Blanchet’s Italian period. On the contrary, parallels are more obvious with his canvases painted in Lyon. Thus, the bearers of sacrifice are reminiscent of the Egyptian women in Moses Saved from the Waters executed by Blanchet in about 1655. The backlit dark palm trees, clouds, and light effects remind one of Cleobis and Biton and the cupids in Allegory of Louis XIV’s Personal Power, datable to about 1661. As for the female figures with their generous arms, slender extremities, long necks, and Greek profiles, one need only look to The Allegory of the Reconciliation of Lyon and Rome or Religion, frontispiece to Pensées chrestiennes pour tous les jours du mois, by Constant de Silvecane (Lyon, 1685), who wears the same light airy veil as the Virgin in our painting.
The fact remains that this little copper brings an essential element to the corpus of Blanchet in more ways than simply technique. Given its classic subject and inspiration which presumably came from Poussin, it turns out to be as audacious and overwhelming as the grand compositions of the Lyonnais master.
We would like to thank Mme. Lucie Galactéros-de Boissier for having confirmed the attribution of our oeuvre, and we would also like to thank M. Dominique Jacquot, Chief Curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Strasbourg.
Lucie GALACTEROS-DE BOISSIER, Thomas Blanchet, Paris, Arthéna, 1991.