Jean-Charles-Joseph RÉMOND (Paris, 1795 - 1875)

The Death of Hippolytus

82 x 100 cm. (32 516 in. x 3 ¼ in.)

Oil on its original canvas
Signed and dated: REMOND 1819

Provenance :
· France, Private Collection.

General Bibliography (Unpublished Work) :
Suzanne GUTWIRTH, “Jean-Charles-Joseph Rémond (1795-1875) : premier grand prix de Rome du paysage historique,” Bulletin de la Société d’histoire de l’art français, 1981, publ. 1983, no 50, pp. 189-218 (omitted).

“Carried away by terror and thus deafened,
They no longer recognized either reins or voice.
Their master’s weakening efforts consumed all his strength
As bits became drenched in crimson froth [….]
Across the rocks, fear precipitated them.
The axle screeched and burst asunder. The intrepid Hippolytus
saw his smashed chariot fly to pieces,
As he himself tumbled and became entangled in the reins.
Forgive my pain. This cruel image
Will forever be cause for eternal tears.
I saw, my Lord, I saw your unfortunate son
Dragged by the very horses his hands had fed.
He tried to call, and his voice caused them to panic even more.
They ran. Soon his whole body was a single open wound.
The plain rang with our heart-rending cries.
Their impetuous flight finally slowed down […]
I arrived. I called him, and as he held out his hand,
He opened a dying eye which just as suddenly closed again.”

- Racine, Phaedra, 1677, Act V, Scene 6, v. 1535-1560.

This poignant account in which Theramenes describes the atrocious death of Hippolytus to the youth’s father, Theseus, is at the heart of the next to last scene of Phaedra, Racine’s masterpiece. As opposed to the death of Phaedra which concludes the play, Hippolyte’s demise is only “seen” by the spectators through this long monologue delivered with great emotion by the tutor who had raised the prince. Though Racine was inspired by Euripedes’ and Seneca’s tragedies, the French poet substitutes Theramenes for the anonymous messenger charged with this funereal mission. Moreover, the ancient authors had not placed anyone near the dying youth, whereas Racine, via the tongue of Theramenes, relates the arrival of Hippolyte’s beloved Aricia, who accuses the gods with a “sad gaze” and then falls in a swoon into the arms of her confidante, Ismene (verses 1574-1588).

Thus, Jean-Charles-Joseph Rémond was inspired by French classical theater and not antique sources when he painted The Death of Hippolytus presented here. In the foreground, he placed Hippolytus’ morbidly pale corpse with his red tunic made an even deeper red by the blood. His lifeless head rests in the hands of Theramenes. The majestic old man passionately turns with compassion towards the young girl dressed as a princess, Aricia, whose legs have folded, and towards Ismene, who holds up her devastated companion in extremis. To the left, lie the chariot’s smashed wheels, and further off, the tree trunk which, according to Seneca, inflicted the mortal wound on the hero’s flank. To the right, one glimpses the horses racing away, their eyes red and crazy with fear. Finally, in the background, the silhouette of the city of Troezen rises between the boulders and the still boiling sea which just swallowed the marine monster who had terrified Hippolytus’ horses. This monster had been sent by Poseidon at the request of Theseus himself who had been convinced that his son was having an affair with his wife Phaedra.

All of Theramenes’ account, one of the most famous passages in French poetry, is depicted here. However, contrary to his illustrious predecessors, including Charles Le Brun who chose this same subject for the Frontispiece of the first edition of the tragedy, the landscape here dominates the human figures who are overwhelmed by Nature’s monumentality and impassiveness.

In fact, Rémond was a landscape painter, one of the most talented who prospered in the generations between Joseph Vernet and Corot and produced artists such as Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunoy (1757-1841) and Achille-Etna Michallon (1796-1822). Born in Paris to a copperplate printer, by 1809, Rémond was being taught by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1859), a Neoclassical history painter who inculcated solid anatomical knowledge in his student. In 1814, Rémond entered the School of Fine Arts as student of the landscapist Jean-Victor Bertin (1767-1842). The same year, the young artists exhibited a Village Church in Burgundy in the Salon (no. 780). Three years later, although the Academy created the Grand Prix de Rome in historical landscape which was won by Michallon, Rémond sent another view painted from Nature (no. 639), but signed two paintings, a very classical Landscape (Varzy, Museum inv. VP 272) and the Death of Adonis (Clamecy, Museum), both of which have the same dimensions as our painting.

In 1819, the date of the Death of Hippolytus, Rémond was already a well-known artist. He presented two large and ambitious paintings, a Historical Landscape depicting Oedipus (no. 941, 162 x 226.8 cm., current location unknown) and a Historical Landscape depicting Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos (current location unknown). He won a second class medal and a State commission for the Gallery of Diana at Fontainebleau (Charlemagne Fatally Wounded, 190 x 280 cm., Louvre, inv. 7409).

Acclamation was achieved in the course of the second Grand Prize for Historical Landscape in 1821. Rémond carried the competition with an absolute majority of votes for the Abduction of Proserpine (114 x 146 cm., Paris, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, inv. PRP 61). The jury particularly praised the “very agreeable conception” and noted that the “entire work is harmonious, the execution brilliant and firm, the figures would do honor to a history painter.” One of Rémond’s students also participated in the competition (probably Frédéric-Etienne Villeneuve), which led the critics to say that holding the competition every four years penalized the artist “whose reputation and status seemed to have already been assured by two successes at the Salon.”

After four years spent as pensioner in Italy, Rémond returned to France and excelled in the genre of composed landscape nourished by close observation of Nature. He enjoyed his well-earned fame, exhibited in the Salons until 1848, received State commissions regularly, and in about 1827, opened a studio where Theodore Rousseau and Eugene Fromentin got their start.

Following his Roman sojourn, Rémond’s manner became more supple and perfected, but he remained true to Neoclassical doctrines and to his own personal style: a composition which developed from a tiered perspective; an ingenious distribution of light which illuminates or leaves certain elements in shadow so as to re-enforce spatial illusion; stumped backgrounds against which finely drawn leaves stand out; a graceful placement of figures.

Our picture perfectly illustrates Rémond’s talent for historical landscapes and his interest in dramatic subjects. It is possible that the painter intended The Death of Hippolytus for the Salon, but finally preferred to send one of his more imposing works. The artist returned to the subject for a monumental painting exhibited in the Salon of 1845 and this time, showed the instant preceding the hero’s tumble (Hippolytus, no. 1412. 240 x 220 cm., unknown location):

“The artist depicts Hippolytus in his chariot, carried away by his horses at the appearance of a monster whose back rises above the sea like a wet mountain. Racine’s account, followed by M. Rémond, fortunately inspired the painter who has doubly displayed his skill by making a really beautiful group of figures and horses, and by placing this scene in a seascape handled vivaciously and truthfully.”

In our painting, the monster has already disappeared and only a few waves trouble the surface of waves recalling its presence. Nature is penetrated by the drama that is playing out in the foreground, as well as in the chiaroscuro, which is both realistic and theatrical, created by sunrays shining through the thick foliage of the trees. This contrast is extended into the landscape, where the cold bluish tints of the sky, water, and leaves of trees along the coast contrast with the warm ochre colors of the earth, rocks, and figures. Similarly, the immobility of the men communicates their stupor in contrast to the mad unchecked stampede of the horses. Like a dramatist, Rémond has thus succeeded in intertwining contradictory forces and passions while providing them with a bountiful and already romantic nature as a setting.

A.Z.

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