• France, Private Collection.
Simultaneously a character study descended from the Flemish tronies of the Golden Century, a study from nature indispensable for elaborating history paintings featuring Olympic gods or Biblical figures, and a particularly formative exercise for young artists, the Head of an Old Man appears as a constant in French painting from the foundation of the Academy and following the victory of the Rubenists over the Poussinists. Antoine Coypel, Hyacinthe Rigaud, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Joseph Marie Vien, Nicolas Vleughels, François-André Vincent, Jean Restout: small bust-length depictions of old men can be found in the oeuvres of all the great 18th century artists. Their titles vary according to whether the viewer perceives an old peasant, apostle, Oriental, beggar, or philosopher, but the sober setting and tight framework, along with the dull chromatic range and special attention given to wrinkle-ridden faces and their expressions remain the same.
Our canvas fits into the same tradition and presents an exalted old man with his eyes lifted to the heavens and mouth half-open, as if reciting a prayer or having an astounding vision. His long gray hair scatters in supple curls. He wears a green cloth tunic which leaves his right shoulder bare. Nonetheless, the fabric is handled rapidly by the artist who concentrates mainly on describing a face marked by his years, the formerly brown beard now whitened, the brilliance of the damp gaze, and even the red reflection of his lips over his teeth. The intense chiaroscuro emphasizes the bridge of his nose, accentuates the hollows of his eyes, and sculpts wrinkles so as to confer an incredibly powerful physical presence to the sitter in contrast to his advanced age. The whole work is rendered with a firm skillful hand, with a varied and virtuoso technique, as in the light reflections rendered in full impasto on the forehead, brushed into the hair, and spread across the shoulder.
This type of very Davidian face, its technique, the reddish preparation, and the Roman canvas indicate a realization by a French artist near the end of the 18th century influenced by Jacques-Louis David. The great proximity of our canvas to the Heads of Old Men painted by the young François-Xavier Fabre, with a similar hand – such as the uninterrupted contour of the eye, the drawing of the eyelashes, and the use of a flat brush for the hair – leads us to suggest this Montpellier painter as the artist of our work.
Son of the painter Joseph Fabre, François-Xavier Fabre began his apprenticeship in his father’s studio, then continued in the drawing schools maintained by the Society of Fine Arts constituted in 1779 which brought together art collectors. The Society sent him to perfect his training in Paris in the studio of David whose style permanently marked the young artist’s style. In 1787, after two unsuccessful attempts, he won the Grand Prix in painting for Nebuchadnezzar having Zedekiah’s Children Killed (Paris, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts), which won him a scholarship to Rome. He spent five years there, from 1787 to 1792, scrupulously completing all of the work required by his situation: drawings after masterpieces, copy after a Guido Reni painting, on-site landscape studies, painted studies of the male nude.
A brilliant student at the Academy and appreciated by the Count of Angiviller, Director of Buildings, protected by Vien, his compatriot and painter to the king, Fabre saw his professional future darken when the Revolution broke out. In 1791, the Salon opened to painters who had not been agrées. He exhibited Susannah and the Elders (Fabre Museum), painted in Rome for a group of Parisian collectors, as well as Abel Dying realized the previous year (Fabre Museum). The latter garnered everyone’s approbation, and a critic didn’t hesitate to designate it as “the most perfect picture in the Salon.” The suppression of the Academy in 1792, the fall of the monarchy, and the hostility of the Roman people forced the artist to leave the Eternal City for Florence, where he stayed until 1824. He was initially protected by Grand Duke Ferdinand III, and then by successors imposed by Napoleon, but especially by the Countess of Albany, widow of the last Stuart claimant to the throne of England, who became the artist’s friend.
Our old man, who is also reminiscent of Belisarius painted by David in 1785 and copied the same year by Fabre (Paris, Louvre Museum, inv. 3494), can be compared to the Head of an Old Man conserved in the Fabre Museum and inscribed on the verso, “from life in September 1784.” For that matter, reminiscences of these expressive character heads can be found in Fabre’s history paintings, such as Susannah in 1791 and The Vision of Saul in 1803 (Fabre Museum).
General Literature (Unpublished Work)
Pierre QUARRE, “Deux élèves de l’Académie de peinture de Dijon. Jean-Claude Naigeon et Jean Naigeon,” Bulletin de la Société d’Histoire de l’Art Français, 1963 (1964), pp. 121-132.
Philippe BORDES, “François-Xavier Fabre, peintre d’Histoire,” Burlington Magazine, vol. 117, 1975, pp. 90-98.
Laure PELLICIER, Michel HILAIRE, Sidonie LEMEUX-FRAITOT, Carlo SISI, François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837), de Florence à Montpellier, exh. cat. Montpellier, Fabre Museum, Paris, Somogy, 2008.