• The artist’s collection.
• His post-mortem sale, 11-25 April 1825, part of lot 330 (“Suite of twenty compositions, of small dimensions, some sketched in black and white chalk on blue paper, other simply outline. Three are finished with stump and black chalk on white paper.”)
• Lot hammer price 272 francs, then scattered.
• Sale, Vienna, Dorotheum, 19 March 2002, lot 26.
• Sale, London, Sotheby’s, 9 July 2003, lot 127 (as Cupid and Psyche).
• France, Private Collection.
Lithograph during the artist’s life and under his direction by Joseph Dassy in 1820. Printed by C. Costans, Paris.
Voluptuousness guides them and pudeur sighs,
But [are] immediately banished by delirious Cupid,
To the refuge discrete Leander is introduced
And conducted triumphally to the virgin bed.
There, from his black hair with rippling tresses
She expresses the foam of her caressing hands.
The sweetest perfumes bring alive his vigor
And the algae and waves soon chase away the odor.
Museum, Hero and Leander, Greek poem translated to French by Girodet.
Inspired by a very ancient legend known by Virgil and Ovid, Museum the Grammarian, an Egyptian poet from the 5th or 6th century, narrated the tragic love of Hero and Leander in a poem of three hundred forty three verses in Greek. Leander, a young Greek, lived in the town of Abydos on the banks of the Hellespont. One day, during a festival, he encountered Hero, the priestess of Aphrodite at Sestos situated on the other side of the strait. He fell head over heels in love. Thanks to his words which take up most of the poem, he manages to make himself loved by the young woman. But she is sworn to chastity, and at the request of her parents, lives as a recluse in a tower overlooking the sea. Thus, every night, Leander swims across the Hellespont guided by the flame lit by Hero. During a storm one night, the wind extinguishes the light and the young man drowns. In the morning, Hero discovers her lover’s corpse tossed up by the sea. She hurls herself off the top of her tower.
Published in Venice in 1494, the Grammarian’s poem was translated into French in 1541 by Clément Marot, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that the story of the two lovers of the Hellespont became really famous. In 1784, its prose translation by Gabriel de La Porte du Theil appeared, then in 1796, that of Jean-Baptiste Gail which was more elegant and faithful to the original. In 1805, Charles-Louis Mollevaut published a version in verse, but it had neither the grace of Marot nor of Girodet’s version published in 1829 by Pierre-Alexandre Coupin with other literary and poetic works by the artist.
An accomplished poet, the painter had already translated Anacreon’s and Virgil’s Odes which he accompanied with a “multitude of compositions which his pencil improvised,” because, as the Perpetual Secretary of the Academy, Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy, said in his posthumous elogy to Girodet, the latter “did not read anything that didn’t become the program for a new subject” and “did not let go of a poem which he had not translated into a drawing.”
Hero and Leander kept Girodet busy at the end of his career and inspired a whole series of drawings on blue or white paper. Responsible for the artist’s inventory before the sale of his studio in April 1825, Alexis-Nicolas Perignon, Girodet’s student, gathered these pages into the same lot 330. Identifiable, mainly because of Perignon’s initials on the back, accompanied by those of Benoist Antoine Bonnefons, appraiser, and of Lavialle and Antoine-César Becquerel, the executor of the artist’s will, the drawings were subsequently scattered to various private collections.
Of the twenty studies of Hero and Leander which Coupin situated between 1810 and 1814, at least eight are known. Six were acquired by the Louvre in 1877 by M. Vionnois (inv. RF 410-415, ill. 1): Hero Sacrificing to Venus; Leander on the Banks of the Hellespont; Hero and Leander Mounting the Tower; Hero Climbing Back Up the Tower in the Morning; Leander Dying as He Crosses the Hellespont; and Hero Plunging Into the Waves. Two others recently appeared on the art market: Leander untying Hero’s Belt and Hero Discovering Leander’s Drowned Corpse. Our drawing thus constitutes the ninth one known of the cycle and the fourth in order of narration.
More or less finished, the drawings appear to have been meant as preparation for lithographs intended to illustrate the artist’s translation of Museum. Nonetheless, only our composition was engraved in 1820 by Joseph Dassy, Girodet’s student. The latter added several modifications and only kept the poses of the two protagonists. Everything indicates that Coupin’s suggested dating is exact and that our study is from before 1814, the year when Pierre-Claude Delorme, also Girodet’s follower, presented a large oil on canvas painting of the same subject to the Salon (unpublished in the livret).
After his master’s death, Dassy lithographed Leander Untying Hero’s Belt, not after the study, but after a very finished oil sketch that was in Becquerel’s collection at the time.
The series dramatizes two lovers, accompanied by Love or Cupid, who is an emotionally involved accomplice, and by Venus, sometimes as an intractible goddess, sometimes - as in our drawing - in the guise of Hero’s servant. In this, Girodet follows the antique text which often calls on the two divinities even if neither takes an active role in the story. Nonetheless, probably to avoid any confusion, the artist deleted Venus from the two final compositions which are known from Dassy’s lithographs. He replaced her with a statue of the goddess of love.
Quick and lively, Girodet’s drawings for Hero and Leander are initial sketches, premières pensées, inspired by close reading of the ancient text. They are as laconic as the artist’s illustrations for Phædre and Andromache, exhibited in the Salon of 1804, but do not have the sheer purity of the later drawings for Virgil’s Æneid. Here, Girodet depicts the passage cited at the beginning of our entry when Hero welcomes her lover into her chamber and pours precious perfumes over his head. The supple precise line communicates the artist’s efforts to find the best lines for the body and drapery folds in the young woman’s transparent tunic. The white highlights emphasize Leander’s musculature which is reminiscent of the Belverdere Torso, and spreads cold moonlight reflections on the drapery, hair, and wings of Cupid who is curious about Hero’s gesture and invisible to the lovers.
We would like to thank Madame Sidonie Lemeux-Fraitot for having kindly confirmed the authenticity of our drawing which will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist’s œuvre.
Œuvres posthumes de Girodet-Trioson peintre d’histoire, éd. P. A. Coupin, Paris, Renouard, 1829, vol. I, p. LXXX (“1810 […] Hero and Leander. Suite of twenty compositions, of small dimensions, some sketched in black and white pencil [Translator’s note: actually chalk] on blue paper, others only line drawings. Three are finished with stump and black pencil [TN: idem] on blue paper. Hero pours perfume over Leander’s head just when he enters the tower. Lithography by M. Dassy, under Girodet’s direction. ”).
Sylvain BELLENGER (dir.), Girodet. 1767-1824, exh. cat. Paris, Chicago, New York, Montreal, 2005-2007, Paris, Gallimard, Louvre Museum Editions, 2005.