• France, Private Collection.
This unsigned painting, which evidence indicates is from the 17th century French School, was inspired by two famous examples. The first is the influence of Annibale Carracci, author of two Piétas which were particularly admired. Our composition refers less to the one which was acquired by Colbert de Seignelay before entering the Regent’s famous gallery (now in the London National Gallery) than it does to another Carracci Pieta in which Christ’s silhouette is similar. The second source of inspiration was the art of Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), First Painter to the Sun King. The figure of Saint Mary Magdalene, as she is presented on the left of our painting, can hardly be disassociated from the figure of the protagonist’s kneeling daughter in Le Brun’s Sacrifice of Jephthah now in the Uffizi.
The idea of sacrifice being common to the two works, the motif of Le Brun’s weeping feminine figure was easy to transpose to Licherie’s painting, as was the tondo format. Similarly, another of Charles Le Brun’s works, Pentecost, now in the Louvre, provides the origins of the Virgin’s aura with her face turned to the heavens.
At this point, there is a good chance that the author of our Pietà is to be found among Charles Le Brun’s students and other assistants. The fact is that Art Historians have mainly retained the names of his principal collaborators at the famous Versailles worksite, that is to say, René-Antoine Houasse, Claude II Audran, et François Verdier. Less attention has been given to a fourth artist whose career, if the sources are to be believed, was backed by Charles Le Brun: Louis Licherie.
According to his biographer Guillet de Saint-Georges, Licherie was born in Houdan, spent time in the studio of Louis Boullogne le Père, and was presented very early to Lebrun whose team he joined in 1666. Thanks to the King’s First Painter, the following year the young artist was appointed Director of the School of Drawing at the Gobelins Manufactory, a position he occupied until 1670 with emoluments which rose to 600 pounds per year. His progression at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was equally rapid: received on March 18th, 1679 with Abigail carrying Presents to King David (Paris, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts), he was appointed Assistant Professor two years later. Even so, the artist does not appear to have been implicated very much in the grand decoration supervised by Le Brun. Instead he mainly worked for churches and monasteries. Thus St. Louis Taking Care of the Soldiers for the main altar of the Soldiers’ Church at Invalides can be cited (lost; the modello is conserved in Rouen), as can a cycle for Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, some works for the Grand Augustinians in Paris and for the Chartreuse of Bourgfontaine (some of which are signed).
Guillet de Saint-Georges’ text is even more valuable when one learns that Louis Licherie’s first important oeuvre was a Descent from the Cross, apparently executed between 1665 and 1670. Its location is no longer known, but it seems that it could be identified with a picture sold in France in 1998 under an erroneous attribution to François Verdier. In fact, the existence of a print after an Assumption by Louis Licherie brings the Descent from the Cross closer to Licherie’s art: his take on the Virgin’s head and torso is almost identical (the engraving only inverts the motif). It is obvious that if the Descent from the Cross is by Licherie, then the Pieta is also by the same artist: the motifs of the dead Christ and the Virgin were, in fact, reproduced from one work to another.
The attribution of our Lamentation of Christ to Licherie is confirmed by a Christ on the Cross with Saint Bruno, engraved by Louis Cossin after a work by this same artist which today is lost. Whether in the engraving or the Pieta, St. Mary Magdalene is strikingly similar. Beyond the ensemble of analogies with works by Louis Licherie, the close attention given to the instruments of the passion is evident. This manner of very analytically painting the objects in the immediate foreground of a composition seems to have been Louis Licherie’s veritable “trademark”: Lithurgical vessels and other accessories are always prominent, whether in the Descent from the Cross, the painter’s reception piece, the Holy Family at the Thomas Henry Museum in Cherbourg, or the Saint Louis in the Fine Arts Museum of Rouen.
François Marandet, July 3rd, 2017
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Jacques THUILLIER, “Un tableau de Louis Licherie, le Saint Louis soignant ses soldats atteints de la peste,” Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France, no 6, 1969, pp. 347-354.