Nicolas VLEUGHELS (Paris, 1668 - Rome, 1737)

Shepherds Secretly Spying on Sleeping Nymph

18.1 x 23 cm. (7 18 x 9 116 in.)
c. 1715 Oil on panel

A Nymph Sleeping in a Landscape by Vleughels was sold in Paris on March 28th, 1792 (Le Jeune Sale), and then by Lebrun on July 15th, 1802 (lot 129). Its dimensions (11 by 14 inches, that is about 30 by 38 cm.) were substantially larger than those of our panel, but the frame could have been included in those measurements.
• Great Britain, Private Collection

From Paris to Italy
Nicolas Vleughels was the son of Philippe Vleugels, a portraitist originally from Antwerp who settled in France in about 1640, and of Catherine de Plattemontagne, sister of the painter Nicolas de Plattemontagne. The young artist spent his youth in the Flemish circles of Saint-Germain des Prés. His art conserved strong Nordic influence in spite of his apprenticeship in Pierre Mignard’s studio. In 1694, Vleughels obtained the Academy’s second Grand Prize with Lot and his Daughters. He benefited from two royal pensions, but had to go to Italy at his own expense. He arrived in Rome in 1704, and only returned to France in 1715, having stayed not only in the Eternal City, but also Modena and Venice where he discovered Veronese.

In Italy, the artist became friends with a number of artists and collectors, including Rosalba Carriera and Pierre Crozat. Thanks to the latter, Vleughels, upon his return to France, was introduced to the Duc d’Antin, Director of Buildings, and met Robert de Cotte and Jean de Julienne. His immediate circle also included the Countess of Verrue, Antoine Pesne, and Watteau who even lived for a while at Vleughels’.

Agréé by the Academy in 1715, Vleughels was received the following year with Apelles painting Campaspe (Louvre Museum). It happens to be the only extant picture of his with large scale figures. The rest of his work is constituted of small scale cabinet pictures, painted on copper or wood, in light colors and with mythological or religious subjects. According to Mariette, “he knew the secret of making small pictures which pleased: he only handled pleasant subjects and his figures, as well as his compositions, had something flattering [about them].” In an era still dominated by grand history painting, Vleughels’ delicate works were very successful: the Countess of Verrue’s collection included eleven of them. Many of his compositions were engraved, especially by Edme Jeurat, Nicolas Edelinck, and Louis Surugue.

Director of the French Academy in Rome
In 1724, the Duc d’Antin chose the artist to succeed Poerson as Director of the French Academy in Rome. A skilled administrator and excellent professor, Vleughels was the first great director of this institution, not only in the education of the artists who would incarnate 18th century art – such as Subleyras, Natoire, Carle Van Loo, and Boucher – but also for Roman artistic life. The Academy of Saint Luke elected him to be a member by 1725.

His regular reports to the Duke d’Antin furnish valuable information on his manner of working. A capacity for sustained application to a task was the essential feature of his character: “If I had to quit this application, it would be painful; but one must do everything for one’s health.” This quality accounts for the minute detail in his manner of painting and his keen sense of perfection. His smooth handling, attentive brushstroke, luminous hues, and rendering of materials is even more virtuoso in that they are often in very small formats, as in the case of our panel.

Our Painting: Vleughels and Poussin
With considerable sensitivity, our painting perfectly illustrates Vleughels’ characteristic style as well as his interest for the great masters of the past from whom – as a fine connoisseur - he often drew inspiration. He almost literally reproduces a picture by Nicolas Poussin here. Realized upon Poussin’s arrival in Rome in 1624, the large canvas was acquired in Paris by the Elector of Dresden before 1722 (Shepherds Spying on Venus, Dresden, Staat. Kunst. Gemäldegalerie, Gal. Nr. 721) . Never engraved, it was not the artist’s most famous work and is even classed among the least “poussinesque.” An admirer of Rubens and Veronese, Vleughels could not help being seduced by its Venetian aspect and the young woman’s sensual pose as she sleeps at the edge of the forest and is surprised by two shepherds. It could be Venus, guarded by her sons, Eros and Anteros, but seems more likely to be an inebriated nymph: next to her improvised resting place can be seen a tipped over amphora, a cup, and grapes. One of the winged putti is thus Cupid ready to release an arrow into the heart of the man absorbed in contemplating the beauty.

This is not Vleughel’s only borrowing from Poussin: The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Poussin inspired the circle in Vleughels’ Allegory of Autumn (oil on copper, 22 x 28 cm. / 8 5/8 x 11 in. private collection). Each time, however, the painter appropriates the composition entirely, even when he only brings minimal changes, as in our panel, where the only real difference seems to be the number of arrows which the putto holds in the foreground: two in the work of the master from Les Andelys and one in Vleughels’.

For the artist never sought to imitate Poussin’s style. Quite the opposite, as the handling is his, glossy and suave, always with a warm light palette and minute fluid drawing which is not exempt from certain little awkward details typical of his work and pinpointed by Mariette, such as the nymph’s right arm with its uncertain foreshortening. The young woman with porcelain flesh and delicate profile is the perfect twin to the goddess of love in Venus and the Graces Watching over Cupid painted by Vleughels in 1725 (private collection). The fleshy crimson lips, the fine nose with a slightly descending tip recur regularly in the artist’s work, as does the drawn-out line with which he marks the lashes of the closed or half-closed eyes, and which can be found especially in the Abduction of Helen of 1716 (private collection). Similarly, the pink plump putto with the arrow has more in common with Rubens than with Poussin.

The painter’s nervous sensitive brushstroke seeks to perfect the least detail with a constant concern for elegance and lightness: the fine draperies with flowing folds, the bright reflections on the metal amphora, the cupids’ sparkling wings, the delicate flowers which are scattered through the clearing, the filigreed foliage of the trees with their knotty branches, the sheep’s thick wool, the bluish mountains in the distance, the jagged clouds, the nymph’s locks of hair.

As always when a composition pleased him, Vleughels reused Poussin’s staging in Spring engraved by Jeurat in 1716, The Power of Love later, and etched by Joseph Van Loo and again in Mars and Rhea Silvia of 1724 (Valenciennes, MBA, inv. RF 1948-10), which is especially close to our work.

General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Bernard HERCENBERG, Nicolas Vleughels, Peintre et Directeur de l’académie de France à Rome, 1668-1737, Paris, 1975.

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