Artist’s personal collection.
His port-mortem sale, Paris, Drouot, February 2nd, 1881, Charles Pillet, expert Georges Petit, lot 30 (bought 500 francs).
France, Private Collection.
Paris, Salon of 1872 (above competition), no 1398.
Vienna, 1873, World’s Fair, France: Works of Art and National Manufacturing, p. 142, no 582.
In one last terrible fit, Richelieu sits up and knocks over the chair upon which his portfolio is placed. Mazarin rushes to catch it.1
Such is the brief description which accompanied The Vision of Cardinal de Richelieu on his Deathbed, a painting above competition presented in the Salon of 1872 by Henri-Frédéric Schopin along with The Last Moments of Duguesclin (1397). In these paintings, the artist thus delivered a real reflection to the Salon visitors on the disappearance of two illustrious servants of the State. One –Du Guesclin – more military, frank, and chivalrous, confronts death calmly. The other – Richelieu – shrewder and more Machiavellian, tormented right up until his last breath by the phantoms of those who had been executed at his orders.
Frédérik-Henri Charles Albert Schopin was born in the Free Hanseatic city of Lübeck. His family stopped there on their way back from Saint Petersburg where his father, the French sculptor Jean Louis Chopin (Paris, 1747-1815) helped embellish Catherine II’s residences. Our painter was the youngest of five children and the only one to choose an artistic profession. The eldest, Jean, called Ivan Ivanovitch Chopin, remained in Russia and led a brilliant career in the Imperial administration. Jean-Marie and Jacques Dominique Chopin opted for literary vocations. The increasing popularity of the pianist Frédéric Chopin, to whom our painter was no relation, obliged him to modifier the order and spelling of his names, thus bringing out his German birth.
In 1820, Schopin entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the studio of Baron Gros. The portrait of “F.H. Chopin” figures in Louis-Léopold Boilly’s drawing of Students in the Studio of Baron Gros dated that same year (Paris, Carnavalet Museum, inv. D5018). In 1831, after various successes in competitions, Schopin won the Grand Prix de Rome with Achilles pursued by Xanthus. His Roman years in the Villa Medici took place under the direction of Horace Vernet whose style heavily influenced him. Certain of Schopin’s composition were engraved as pendants to Vernet’s works.
Back from Italy in 1835, the artist had his debut in the Salon with five pictures (no. 1958-1962): a Roman landscape, a Faun, the surprising Portrait of Jules Janin (Evreux, Museum of the Former Bishop’s Palace) and especially two historical paintings which won him the first class medal. The first was a subject taken from Florentine 16th century history, The Last Moments of the Cenci Family, purchased by the State for the Museum of Douai, and the second, a terrible incident from 16th century France, Charles IX Signing the Act of Saint Bartholomew (current location unknown), painted in Rome the preceding year.2 These two ambitious paintings marked the artist’s interests in important recent historic events, always depicted at some distance from the actual tragedy. Instead of the declenching of the Saint Bartholomew violence, Schopin thus preferred the king’s painful decision as he signed the death warrant for many subjects. Similarly, rather than depicting Francesco Cenci’s murder by his children and spouse, the painter chose to show the parricidal family walking to the scaffold. Multiplying the characters, Schopin positioned himself as a painter of emotions who flees the attraction of narrative and instead seeks dramatic intensity in poses and expression: his canvases seem like theater or opera scenes.
Crowned with this first success, Schopin pursued a career as an academic history painter who hardly suffered from political upheavals. He was present in almost all the Salons until 1879, as well as at the world’s fairs and many events in the provinces. Painting in every genre, praised for his rapid vigorous brushstroke, the artist was especially famous for his multi-figure compositions which treated Biblical, literary, and especially historic subjects, as in The Divorce of Napoleon and Josephine, presented in the Salon of 1847 and immediately acquired by the Duke of Morny. Schopin worked for the Gallery of Battles in Versailles, the former Hôtel de Ville in Paris, the Consuls’ Palace in Rouen, and the Saint Saturnine Chapel in Fontainebleau. Napoleon III was one of his admirers. In 1854, the latter bought his Toilette of Esther and commissioned a canvas from him on the theme of a hunting gathering at the Toulouse Cross in Fontainebleau Forest: as the court did not come to the château, Schopin was not able to finish his painting. Six years later, the Emperor visited his studio and acquired four other paintings for his personal collection: two religious paintings and two Orientalist pictures.3
The two paintings presented in the Salon of 1872 by the artist, now age sixty-eight, reconnected with the dramatical scenes of his early career which had become a bit dulled under the Second Empire. As was his custom, he chose to paint the agony of two great men from the past rather than their deaths themselves. His Du Guesclin is not, as with Nicolas-Guy Brenet or Antoine Rivoulon, the deceased honored by the conquered, but he “entrusts his Constable’s sword to Marshall Sancerre, charging him to return it to King Charles V.”
A fairly unprecedented subject until then, the disappearance of Richelieu had only been handled by Philippe de Champaigne, author of a surprising picture which shows the expired Cardinal, stretched out in his bed, his murdered body hidden under the covers and his face hollowed by disease and death (oil on canvas, Institute of France). Schopin imagined a still vigorous Richelieu and transformed his last moments into a real theater piece, drawing his inspiration from the historians Jules Michelet4 and Jean Baptiste Capefigue. The latter began his account of Richelieu’s death with this passage which would seem to describe our painting:
A lofty haughty political policy, in fact an implacable one, wears out the resilience of existence; each act of bloody severity takes away a day of rest, a few nights of sleep, and images of scaffoldings that one raises follow you as threatening specters. Richelieu’s shrewd politics are drenched in worries and sickness, he has no more composure left.5
Consciously distancing himself from documents of the time which described the minister’s last minutes as peaceful and Christian, Schopin transforms them into a magisterial and tragic representation, featuring Richelieu seized by a Dantesque apparition of an otherworldly pyre and skulls whose eye sockets glimmer from beyond the tomb.
For more effect, the painter has condensed into one moment several visits that Richelieu had received over the previous two days before his death on December 4th, 1642. In his bedroom in the Cardinal Palace – not conserved – Schopin had to imagine the furniture and rich sculpted and gilt décor; several figures thus jostle around the bed with its open curtains separated from the rest of the room by a perfectly incongruous balustrade which should have been reserved only for the king. Near the desk on which a world globe, an inkstand, papers, and the royal seal are arranged, the painter has placed Mazarin, Richelieu’s successor imposed on the king by the dying man himself. Already in charge, Mazarin gathers the portfolio containing State papers which was on the chair overturned by Richelieu.
At the foot of the bed, Louis XII is comfortably settled into an armchair, whereas all of the sources describe him as already very weakened: death would carry the sovereign away five months later. Behind the king, the Duchess of Aiguillon can be recognized thanks to her widow’s weeds. The Cardinal’s favorite niece remained near her uncle until the morning of December 4th, until Richelieu prayed her to leave as he did not want to inflict the sight of his agony on her. The presence of the ladies around the Duchess is not as easy to explain, especially as it is known that “Richelieu’s room was full of bishops, abbots, lords, and gentlemen.”6 Similarly, it is certainly to better evoke the minister’s actions that behind the bed, Schopin figures Richelieu’s eminence grise, Father Joseph, who in fact had already died in 1638. The Bust of Henri IV above the fireplace evokes another one who had departed, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty. It is reminiscent of the statue of the Commander which accompanied Don Juan to Hell. Finally, the man standing at the door jam and surrounded by armed guards would seem to be Jean-Arnaud du Peyrer, Count of Tréville, Captain of the Musqueteers, whom the Cardinal had had dismissed under the belief he had been part of the Marquis of Cinq-Mars conspiracy.
The Richelieu’s repression of this plot and the execution in September 1642 of Cinq-Mars and François-Auguste De Thou, whose courage Michelet and Capefigure praise at length, is expressed by Schopin in the expression of the terrifying apparition above the Cardinal’s prayer stool. But this macabre vision does not stop him from composing a bright luminous work. With an agile precise brush, he carefully depicts details: a refined lace collar or the watered silk of a velvet cushion, a vaporous plume, evanescent smoke. The colors serve dramatic effect. The white harmony of the Cardinal’s emaciated face, his immaculate sheets, is broken only by the calotte’s red. Beyond that, the costumes and décor are embellished by warm colors, ochres in dialogue with nuances of emerald green and a multitude of reds, from the pale pink of a fan to cardinal crimson, highlighted by a few strokes of intense blue in the royal costume, the portfolio, and the sash of the Holy Spirit
1) En se redressant, dans un dernier accès d’épouvante, [Richelieu] fait tomber le meuble sur lequel était placé son portefeuille, que Mazarin s’empresse de ramasser.
2) This picture was noticed by critics already when it was exhibited in 1834 among the works sent by the boarding students in Rome. It was described at length by Alfred Moquin-Tandon in his Journal (Un naturaliste à Paris sous Louis-Philippe : journal de voyage inédit (1834), Paris, 1943, pp. 162-163).
3) Catherine Granger, L’Empereur & les Arts. la liste civile de Napoléon III, Paris, école des Chartes, 2005, pp. 208-209, 622-623.
4) Jules Michelet, Histoire de France, vol. XII. Richelieu et la Fronde, Paris, 1840, p. 265 sq.
5) Jean Baptiste Capefigue, Richelieu, Mazarin, la Fronde et le règne de Louis XIV, 8 vol., Paris, 1836, vol. VI, p. 128 :
“Une politique altière, implacable d’ailleurs, use les ressorts de l’existence ; chaque acte de sévérité sanglante enlève un jour de repos, quelques nuits de sommeil, et les images d’échafauds qu’on a dressés vous poursuivent en spectres menaçans. La fin politique de Richelieu est abreuvée de soucis et de maladie, il n’a plus de calme.”
6) Père Gabriel Daniel, Histoire de France depuis l’établissement de la Monarchie françoise dans les Gaules, nouv. éd. augmentée, vol. XV, Paris, 1756, p. 576 (cited by Capefigue without any mention of source, op. cit., p. 128): “la chambre [de Richelieu] étoit pleine d’évêques, d’abbés, de seigneurs & de gentilshommes.”
Bibliography related to the work
Explication des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure, et lithographie, des artistes vivants exposés au palais des Champs-Élysées le 1er mai 1872, Paris, 1871, p. 212, no 1398.
Jules CLARETIE, Peintres et sculpteurs contemporains, Paris, Charpentier, 1873, “L’Art Français en 1872. Revue du Salon,” p. 334.