France, Private Collection.
“Girodet, painter, scholarship student, talented young man and real patriot (...) He is a very valuable subject with a promising future.”
Recognized in his lifetime by the court of Napoleon I and the French aristocracy in the early 19th century, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson was a history painter and portraitist with talent and an independent spirit.
Sent at a very young age to Paris where his classical studies revealed his artistic virtuosity, Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson rapidly became one of the best students in David’s studio. There he prepared for the Prix de Rome which he won in 1789 with Joseph Recognized by his Brothers (Paris, E.N.B.A.), and pursued his studies of classicism until his return from Italy in 1795.
Girodet was convinced that the Royal Academy limited painters’ freedom by refusing to let their ideas be expressed: “It would be the only way to have men of genius and new productions, but all of them at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture are almost so stupid (...) that I am giving up hope of seeing this useful project carried out.” Consequently he commenced a new manner of handling his subjects.
During his five year absence, France underwent a series for fundamental upheavals in the history of its society. Informed of these events while in Italy, Girodet, who had expressed his strong republican convictions in many letters, (deposited in the Girodet Museum in Montargis by the artist’s heirs,) decided to fully devote himself to the art of portraiture and thus explore new subjects of study, of which the Portrait of Citizen Belley, ex-Representative of the Colonies (Versailles, National Museum of the Chateau and the Trianon) marks the beginning. Fascinated with the first Romantic realisations revealed a few decades earlier by the expressive faces and dramatic scenes in the works of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (Doctor Trioson, Montargis Museum), Girodet was interested in the portrait as a means of expressing psychological intensity and translating the importance of these faces of newly named “citizens” who hitherto had been unknown to high society.
To general surprise, the hanging of pictures in the Salon of 1800 presented some of these faces, which were unknown to the general public and sometimes anonymous, not to mention lacking any direct connection to major historic events. Critics were astonished: “I wonder why we see that many of these individuals who desire to be seen in public don’t think it appropriate to be recognized by this same public.” The Portrait of Citizen Jean-François de Bourgeon, Mayor of Boissy-le-Sec, depicted at the age of forty-three years old, friend and sitter very much appreciated by Girodet figured proudly among these anonymous sitters. He was depicted in two versions: the one in the Salon, today conserved at the Hôtel Sandelin Museum in Saint-Omer and our picture, replicated partially by the artist and by his studio.
Our picture was not commissioned. It was a personal work in honor of the friendship which united the two men. In a letter in 1801, Girodet wrote to him, “(...) I will never, my friend, cease to take a most lively interest in everything that concerns you, I will always learn with an equal satisfaction everything that can contribute to your happiness.”
By deliberately avoiding superfluous accessories which he left to history painting, Girodet sought primarily to render precise characteristics which made it possible to recognize the sitter. With elegant simplicity, Jean-François de Bourgeon is depicted his half-length, his attention turned towards the spectator. Our version’s economy of detail and tight composition allow the viewer to concentrate only on what is essential: the intensity of gaze inviting reflection. In fact, thanks to his mastery of drawing, a talent inherited from his academic training, Girodet emphasizes the peaceful face whose fixed gaze communicates the importance of the sitter’s social function. By presenting this portrait to the Salon, Girodet gratified Citizen Bourgeon with a place at the heart of history painting and official portraits.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work):
Bellanger Sylvain, 2005, Girodet 1767-1824, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Louvre Museum, September 22nd, 2004 to January 2nd, 2005, Louvre Museum Editions, Gallimard, pp. 402-403.