• Raymond Subes Collection (1891-1970 ), Paris.
• Françoise Blanc-Subes (1927-2015) et Jacques Subes (1924-2002) Collection, château des Évêques, Saint-Pandelon, France.
The barely risen clear summer sun dissolves the mist, lengthens shadows, makes the dew scintillate, dapples the foliage, and gilds the abrupt flanks of the rocks. Fishermen fling their nets into the immobile waters of a river still caught in nocturnal torpor, while a shepherd drives his herd to the pasture. All is peaceful and calm, despite the strange threatening shapes of dangerously looming rocks and the jagged forms of dead dried out tree trunks across from them. A ruined castle overlooking the water stands out from a milky background composed of a succession of verdant hills and high mountains.
Everything is presented as if our picture were graciously giving a performance open to several nuanced interpretations and apparently contradictory suggestions: perhaps that multiplicity and those contradictions are the very source of its seductiveness. Here Nature is the background not for grandiloquent actions of historical heroes or mythological subjects but rather serves to dramatize the sweetness of country life with early morning fishing and a peasant walking his herd. Each group of figures evolves in a luminous halo delimited by dense foliage, the outline of the rocks, and the riverbanks. Furthermore, as is the case in certain Pillement paintings, the furtive and questioning gaze of one of the protagonists seeks to catch the viewer’s eye.
Dated 1780, our landscape is a mature work by Jean Pillement, one of the most original late 18th century talents. He was born in Lyon to an artistic family: his father Paul and uncle Philippe had worked as decorators and ornamentalists in Saint Petersburg and Lisbon, a fact which prefigures Pillement’s own incessant peregrinations. After training in Lyon under the history painter Daniel Sarrabat, and then in Paris at the Gobelins, this unclassifiable artist had a career composted of many sojourns in foreign courts. Beginning with three years in Madrid between 1745 and 1748, he then went to Portugal, followed by England in 1754. Decorator and landscape painter, Pillement acquired a certain fame across the Channel, but did not settle there. After returning to France in 1761, he left immediately for Italy where he discovered the Roman countryside, then went to Vienna where he realized grand decorative projects for the Imperial House. Engaged subsequently by Stanislas Auguste, King of Poland, the artist spent two years in Warsaw embellishing royal residences with chinoiseries, flowers, and landscapes.
Pillement left Warsaw in 1767 with the title of First Painter to the King of Poland. Once established in Avignon in the home of his sister Louise who was married to a rich merchant from Pezenas, the artist received prestigious commissions from the Prince of Asturias in 1773 (future Charles IV of Spain) and especially from Marie Antoinette in 1778 with three compositions for the Little Trianon (now lost). In London between 1772 and 1773, and perhaps also in 1779-1780, in Geneva in 1773, Pillement was called back to Lisbon in 1780.
The year 1780 marks the beginning of his most prolific period when he produced his best works. The artist found immediate success with the Queen Mary I of Portugal, the aristocracy, and the enlightened bourgeoisie, which included a large English colony. All of this clientele was particularly taken by his pastel and oil landscapes realized in a very personal and immediately recognizable style composed of the same elements without any exact repetition from one drawing to another. Neither situated in Portugal nor France nor Italy nor the Alps, Pillement’s landscapes are entirely imaginary invented, recomposed, theatricalized views. Great rocks massed on one side of the painting, ravines, steep paths, waterfalls, fragile wooden bridges, trees with tortuous trunks, distant mountainscapes, shepherds, wood carriers, farmers, donkeys being beaten, sheep: Pillement’s creative spirit is infinite to, in his own words, render his pictures “interesting by the penchant for chiaroscuro and the quantity of figures and animals.”
Wherever it was painted – England, France, or already in Lisbon – the landscape which we present is among the most luminous, refined and “precious” realized by master during that critical year. It is probable that the painting had a pendant depicting Evening, comparable to the canvas conserved in San Francisco. As was his custom, the landscape painter reused and modified some elements from previous compositions. Thus one can find the frontal view of the cow in The White Cow (oil on canvas, 45 x 61 cm., private collection) and Cows, Goats, and Sheep in a Mountainous Landscape (oil on canvas, 36.8 x 45.1 cm., private collection).
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Maria GORDON-SMITH, Pillement, Cracovie, IRSA, 2006.
Nicole RICHE, Laurent FELIX, Maria GORDON SMITH, Jean Pillement, paysagiste du XVIIIe siècle (1728-1808), exh. cat. Béziers, Museum of Fine Arts, 2003.
Nuno SALDANHA, Agostinho ARAUJO (dir.), Jean Pillement et le paysage au Portugal au XVIIIème siècle, exh. cat. Lisbon, Fundação Ricardo do Espìrito Santo Silva, 1997.