· France, Private Collection.
François Dubois received a classic education in Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s studio. In 1813, he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and won the second grand prize in painting in 1817 with Oenone Refusing to Rescue Wounded Paris. Two years later, he earned the Grand Prize with Themistocles Taking Refuge at the Court of Admetus (Paris, Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, inv. PRP 58), and then stayed at the Villa Medici for four years from 1820 to 1824.
Present in the Salon from 1814 to 1861, the artist especially excelled in history painting and historic portraiture. He belonged to the last generation of Davidian Neoclassicists and quite naturally drew his subjects from Antiquity. At the Restoration, as with many academic painters, he turned to themes from national history: in 1822, Louis XVIII acquired his Young Clovis Found by a Fisherman on the Banks of the Marne for the new Luxembourg Museum. He subsequently received several commissions from Charles X and Louis-Philippe, including the pictures for the Versailles Museum of History which opened in 1837. Less productive after 1848, Dubois continued nonetheless in the grand genre with paintings of religious subjects.
Our sketch relates an episode from the Trojan War which does not come from Homer, but from the epic cycle and from Euripides, in which Menelaus, King of Sparta, reunites with Helen. In some of these accounts, at Paris’ death, the beauty remarries Deiphobus, son of Priam and Hecuba. Thus, Menelaus precipitates to the house of Deiphobus, and not the palace, when he leaps out of the wooden horse. After violent combat, he succeeds in killing Deiphobus and discovers his wife hidden behind the domestic altar. Menelaus throws himself upon her, sword in hand, but seeing her face and breast uncovered in the tumult, is overcome by love once again, and instead of killing Helen, he protects her, as much from the Trojans as from the Greeks, and brings her back to Sparta.
Dubois situates the dramatic reunion between Menelaus and Helen on the threshold of the house of Deiphobus, whose inert blood-stained corpse lies at the Spartan king’s feet. Around them, the battle rages and while men are clashing and perishing, several hands grab at the young woman’s clothes and arm as she represents choice loot. Stern and determined, the sword ready for slaughter, Menelaus holds her by the waist. Helen, her hair undone, the tunic spilling off of her white bosom, plunges her clear pleading gaze into her first husband’s eyes. He freezes transpierced by renascent love. Behind them, inside the doorframe, two women cry in pain as they support a third who is dying. Finally, in the distance, Greek soldiers invade the city of Troy which is wakening to a rosy dawn.
Dating our Sketch
The frieze composition; the deliberate Hellenization of the costumes, accessories and architecture; the nobleness of profiles inspired by Antiquity; and the moving body language all place our sketch unquestionably in the Neoclassical tradition. However, the fact that the handling of light and color already reveals the influence of Romanticism makes it possible to date it to about 1820, the probable date of Orestes Asleep conserved at Quimper, a painting which displays the same taste for light effects and elongated figures. Furthermore, the hand here is surer and the organization mastered better than in The Death of Darius realized by Dubois for the painted sketch competition for the Academy in 1816 (oil on paper, 42.5 x 37.2 cm., Private Collection). Our work’s composition can be found almost exactly in the tracing which Jean Etienne-Franklin Dubois, François’ younger brother who was also Regnault’s student, did for the Prix de Rome in 1824. Its subject was The Death of Alcibiade (black chalk on tracing paper, 19.7 x 25.8 cm. Ecole des Beaux-Arts, inv. PC 18081-1824-1).
The artist built his composition through flat areas of paint, placed according to the outlines in an underlying rapid precise pen and ink drawing, and thus allowed the brownish shade of the oiled paper show through shaded areas. The mainly grey-ochre palette brings out the crimson of tunics, capes, and blood, the earthy greens in Deiphobus’ armor, and especially the burst of Helen’s porcelain skin, her wheat-colored disheveled hair, her azure eyes, the immaculate white of her dress, and her pink sash. A cold light has just struck the frail silhouette and isolates it from the other protagonists with their extremely taut muscles, black looks, and violent gestures. Similarly, sculpted in vigorous brushstrokes thick with pigment, the interlocking bodies of the men contrast with the delicately modeled young woman.
While respecting the techniques of the sketch painted on oiled paper as it was practiced in the early 19th century Academy, Dubois delivers a surprisingly modern work which owes as much to classicism in the style of David, as to Florentine Mannerism or Fragonard’s art gallant. Everything is presented with a workmanship which accentuates the unfinished, to the point of being schematic and almost abstract in places, and yet elsewhere, of a virtuoso precision which, in just a few brushstrokes, isolates details such as weaponry, expressions, and gestures.