66 x 54 cm. (26 x 21 ¼ in.)
Oil on the original canvas.
Signed and dated, lower right on the stone: Mongin 1818
· France, Private Collection.
1819, Paris, Salon, no 846 (comme appartenant à l’artiste).
In 1762, the French translation from the original German of Idyllen by Salomon Gessner appeared, and included “Myrtil and Chloé.” This very short play featured two young shepherd children whose father was gravely ill. Persuaded that their innocence could merit the protection of the god Pan, they decided to sacrifice their birds, their dearest possessions in the world, to him. At the very instant the children seized their tenderly loved fowl, the gods, filled with compassion, cured their father and rendered the sacrifice unnecessary.
Some thirty years later, Jean Pierre Claris de Florian, poet and dramatist, transformed the story into a one act pastoral, “but, as he never allowed himself to copy anything, made several changes, the most considerable one being that Myrtil and Chloé were no longer brother and sister.” In Florian’s work, the two adolescents, who had become lovers, decided to sacrifice presents received from each other to the god Cupid, in order to obtain Myrtil’s father’s remission: Chloé, with young doves offered by her lover, and he, with a shepherd’s crook made by the young girl. In de Florian’s Theater , the play’s script was introduced by an engraving by François-Marie Queverdo entitled, “In sacrificing everything to one’s duty, one always ends up happy,” and depicted the happy ending: the priest returning the intact offerings to the lovers.
The popularity of Florian’s pastorals hardly suffered from regime changes and his Theater was reprinted every two years until the 1830s. In essence, Myrtil’s tender attachment to Chloé almost eclipsed the ancient love that another Chloé had had for the shepherd Daphnis. Pierre Antoine Mongin thus did not consider it necessary to specify his source of inspiration in giving the following description of the picture which he exhibited in the Salon of 1819: “Chloé, getting out of the bath, has just rested her foot on a plane tree; charmed by the solitude and freshness of the place, she doesn’t dream of putting her clothes back on; she has drifted into deep reverie: all of her thoughts, all of her memories are for Myrtil.” Or perhaps this explanation was requested by the judges who found the initial title of the picture, Reverie, a little too vague. It is in fact the only title which figures in the Register of the Works Presented in the Salon of 1819: “458. 1 picture depicting The Reverie.” But in the Salon, the work became “Reverie (Idyll)” and was accompanied by the short text in the Livret describing what was happening.
Florian includes neither a bathing scene with Chloé nor a reverie. In our canvas, nothing refers explicitly to that play. Is the young woman really a shepherdess? With her blond hair styled in Greek fashion, she could almost be taken for one of the artist’s contemporaries. In reality, this work has no subject and really does not need one. At the threshold of Romanticism, it narrates nothing more than a sweet melancholic sentiment of withdrawal and contemplation, maintained by a suave hand and warm palette. The nude sitter fuses with nature: the aquatic irises, oak and plane tree leaves are described as amorously as the drapery folds or the play of light and shade on the young woman’s rosy flesh. The artist composes his oeuvre like a piece of music, with orangey and indigo harmonies in the fabrics, tremolos of water ripples and the sombre bass undergrowth.
Here one finds all of the French 18th century richness which was assimilated by Mongin during his education at the Royal Academy under Noël Hallé, Gabriel-François Doyen, and François-André Vincent. Equally important is the artist’s own naturalism and openness which place him resolutely in a counter current to the Neoclassical movement. A fine observer, excellent gouache and watercolour painter, he worked directly from nature a lot, and especially sought his sites in the Bagatelle Garden. From 1791 on, Mongin exhibited very diverse pictures in the Salon: views of the city and countryside, scenes of battles and military life, subjects drawn from national history and literature. His known corpus is essentially composed of gouaches and lithographs, techniques which he was one of the first to use in France. He also produced large wall paper designs decorated with panoramic landscapes produced for Jean Zuber’s manufacture. Only a few paintings are known, such as the Curious Man, a savory humorous work which celebrates the union of man and nature in a different manner from our canvas.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Robert Rosenblum, French Painting. 1774-1830. The Age of Revolution, exh. cat. Paris, Detroit, New York, 1975, p. 553.