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Corinne au Cap Misène
(Francois Pascal Simon Baron Gerard)

Description

The present canvas was commissioned in 1820 by the Maison du Roi under Louis XVIII, and follows the larger version (with some variations) completed in 1821 for Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia (Fig.2).[1] In 1819, as an homage to the fascinating and often controversial Madame de Staël who had died two years previously, the prince requested that Gerard illustrate this specific subject from her celebrated novel Corinne ou l’Italie, with the implied suggestion that the novel’s two main characters, the ill-matched lovers Corinne and Oswald, be depicted as resembling Madame de Staël and himself. However, the prince did not insist on this point, possibly because as much as he deeply admired Staël, he recognised that her appeal was rooted in the purely physical.[2] Soon after the picture was completed, the prince gave it to his erstwhile love, Juliette Récamier in exchange for another work by Gérard. It was Madame Récamier, Staël’s closest female friend, who subsequently donated the picture to the museum in Lyon.

 

The version of Corinne au Cap Misène, here exhibited, was included in the Salon of 1822, where it is noted as ‘(M. d R.)’. However, Thiers’ appropriate, if somewhat exhaustive, romantic discussion of this picture is accompanied by an illustration of a lithograph after the Lyon version.[3] This confusion probably arose out of the fact that Gerard could not deliver the picture in time for the vernissage (a point which Thiers himself noted[4]) and in compiling his critique of the 1822 Salon Thiers subsequently confused this version for the larger canvas with which he was already familiar. Unfortunately, Thiers’ formal analysis of Corinne au Cap Misène does not extend to a discussion of individual figures, so he made no mention of the seated figure in the left foreground, which, apart from the obvious shift in scale, is the principal difference between the present canvas and the picture in Lyon. Gerard took his composition from an early scene in Staël’s epic and included most of the novel’s characters, adroitly combining his skill as a portraitist, with his ambitious imagination for subject painting to capture the drama, sensuality and emotional complexity of de Staël’s novel. Like the larger version in Lyon, this version was also commissioned as memorial tribute to one of the most fascinating cultural and literary figures in French history.

 

Madame de Staël first began writing Corinne in 1805, while on a trip to Italy. When her novel was published two years later it was instantly translated into English and became a literary and cultural phenomenon throughout Europe, which endured for generations after her death in 1817. For the last ten years of her life Staël’s public persona and her character of Corinne were inextricable in the public consciousness and any image of one was effectively taken to illustrate the other. At its core Corinne is a romance and was appreciated as such by the public of its day, but it is also a detailed guide to Italy, specifically the churches, art, culture and customs of Naples, Florence, Rome, and Venice. It is also a philosophical self-portrait of the author, the brilliant, captivating, often exasperating Anne-Louise Germaine de Staël.

 

The public and personal image of Staël is such an important aspect of just how Gerard realised both the Lyon picture and present version of Corinne au Cap Misène that a brief biographical sketch of Staël is necessary. She was born in 1766 in Switzerland to Jacques Necker, finance minister to Louis XVI and during much of his kingship, considered to be the second most powerful man in France. Necker and his wife Suzanne Cuchod, a former governess, were both Swiss Lutherans, a fact that contributed significantly to Necker’s future wealth since the Catholic Church’s strict proscriptions against usury meant that France had no internal banking system of its own. Whiles Jacques was making a fortune buying and selling French and British treasury bonds and struggling to reform France’s catastrophic financial system, his ambitious wife formed one of the most dazzling salons of the late ancien régime and personally oversaw the rigorous intellectual grooming of little Germaine. By her seventh birthday, the child was well-versed in maths, geography, science, ancient and modern languages, theology, dancing and deportment, but she did not know how to play and had no friends whatsoever.[5] When she was twelve, Germaine suffered a nervous breakdown and was prescribed rest, playmates her own age and some distance from her mother. Germaine de Staël’s independent nature started to take form immediate thereafter and her mother, with whom she was never close, unlike her uxoriously adored father, never again controlled her remarkably intelligent and impulsive daughter.

 

In 1782, the sixteen year old Germaine had grown into a tall, Junoesque girl who was admired for her dark curls and large hazel eyes, but was by no one’s definition a beauty, a fact that informed a life-long insecurity about her looks. Nevertheless, Staël was not only one of the wealthiest heiresses in Europe, she was also noted for her wit, charm and eloquence, this last quality being particularly valued in the society of her time. She married a handsome Swedish nobleman, Eric Magnus de Staël-Holstein, but the marriage was not a success, and Staël’s passionately romantic nature and intellectual curiosity drove her to embark on a series of affairs. Her lovers included the Vicomte de Narbonne, Talleyrand, and Benjamin Constant and at least three of her children were reputed to have resulted from these relationships. Throughout her life she met, befriended, captivated, infuriated, and often bedded most of the celebrated figures of the early 19th Century. A short list includes Chateaubriand, Gérard[6], Angelica Kauffmann, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Antonio Canova, Goethe, Schiller, Lord Byron, and in particular, August Schlegel and Juliette Récamier!

 

On the eve of revolution and hence during its outbreak and progress, Staël remained in Paris for as long as she dared, always jumping into her carriage to investigate first-hand its most significant and often bloody events, her observations upon which she immediately wrote down. She published several essays on Rousseauian thought, the ideals of the revolution, republicanism, and the Queen’s show-trial in 1793. While she was no egalitarian, Staël remained passionately committed to the fight for a constitutional monarchy, and her lack of tact in this regard poisoned her relationship with Marie-Antoinette to the point that when Staël devised a viable plan to smuggle the royal family out of France after the Varennes fiasco, it was the queen who vetoed it, possibly further sealing both her and her family’s fate.[7]

 

During the République, both the Girondists and the Jacobins in turn found Staël’s opinions and influence objectionable and she was forced to flee France on several occasions, decamping to her family home, the Chateau de Coppet, and for a period, Juniper Hall in Surrey, England.  After the fall of Robespierre, and the excesses of the Directoire, Staël’s attention became focused on the young General Napoleon Bonaparte, whom she finally met in December of 1797. Over the next year Staël determined to join forces with him in the Republican cause, but despite their shared centrist politics, faith in science and personal taste for the melancholy, Napoleon was completely repelled by Staël and eventually came to view her as an active threat.[8] She was exiled numerous times under his regime and it was during one of these periods of ostracism that Staël travelled from Coppet to Rome, where she began to write Corinne.

 

Staël constructed Corinne in twenty ‘books’ in which she variously introduces and describes her three principle characters: the Scottish lord Oswald; his lover, the poetess Corinne; and Italy, where they meet and play out their doomed romance. In illustrating Oswald’s encounter with the elemental Corinne at Cape Miseno above the Bay of Naples, Gerard adhered closely to Staël’s text. Seated by a broken column and dressed in a tunic and a peplum, Corinne prepares to give an encore performance of dance and music which had earlier enraptured her audience (including Oswald) upon the Capitoline Hill. Her audience, Oswald, his English companions, Prince Castelforte (just behind Oswald), some Neapolitan sailors, a Levantine, and natives of the neighbouring islands of Ischia and Procida are just about to gather at her feet, when Corinne puts down her lyre and looks skyward at the roiling storm clouds which mirror her own powerful emotions at seeing Oswald again. Madame de Staël describes:

 

“The pure pale glow of the moon lit up her face, the fresh sea breeze blew her hair, and it seemed as if nature delighted in making her lovelier still. Yet Corinne was suddenly seized by overwhelming emotion; she contemplated the enchanting setting, this intoxicating evening, Oswald who was there beside her, but who might not be there always, and tears streamed from her eyes.”

 

Tangibly Romantic in atmosphere, palette, use of motif and overall composition, Gerard also employs the assured contours, bold colours, and finely sculpted facial types he learned in David’s studio, and in this respect, Corinne au Cap Misène could be considered Gerard’s successful attempt to fuse neo-classical refinement with the impression of unrestrained sensuality that marks the peak of the Romantic movement.

 

Staël’s novel was also appreciated as one of the first modern travelogues of Italy and the topography of Gerard’s scene also closely follows her text:

 

“From the height of the peak which stretches out into the sea and forms the Cape Miseno one sees clearly Vesuvius, the gulf of Naples, the islands scattered across the bay and the countryside which stretches out from Naples right up to Gaeta: the land where volcanoes, history and poetry have left their traces more than anywhere else on earth”.

Here, Gerard slightly changed the background landscape of his Lyon composition, shifting Vesuvius to the extreme left to make Oswald’s head the highest point of focus. The far horizon is further punctuated by Corinne’s upturned face, which additionally draws attention to their opposing expressions of emotion. Here again Gérard appears to have been guided by the text: Corinne’s face is described by Oswald as sybilline, reminiscent of Domenichino, whose works he had just seen in Bologna.[9] However, while Gérard clearly did not paint Corinne as a portrait of her creator, his figure nevertheless symbolises Staël, as in the guise of a muse, ‘the lady with the lyre’, which would have been instantly recognisible to 1822 Salon audiences, even if they had not read her novel.

 

In 1807, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun painted a very personal portrait of Staël, as Corinne, dressed in a tunic and peplum decorated with an anthemion border, seated at the foot of Parnassus, playing a lyre as dark clouds gather uneasily above her (Fig. 3). The sitter’s well-known voluptuous figure, dark curls and large expressive eyes are all evident, as well as her heavy chin, and slightly open mouth with fleshy lips. But even having included all of these veristic, if less admired features, Vigee-Le Brun succeeds in giving Stael’s portrait a stillness and a refined monumentality which recalls classical sculpture and this is not accidental. Staël describes Corinne as a Grecian statue specifically to express not only her beauty but also the timeless power of her art. The fact that this particular analogy stands out in a work which is riven with opposing symbols of both the modern and the eternal. the intellectual and the martial, the age of Cicero and the age of Napoleon – in short the triumph of genius over tyranny, indicates just how much Staël’s own self-image informed Vigée-Le Brun’s portrait. Helen Borowitz has astutely  pointed out the connection between Stael’s portrait as Corinne and Antonio Canova’s contemporary sculptural portrait of Napoleon’s sister-in-law, Alexandrine Bonaparte as the muse Terpsichore (Fig. 4).[10] Lucien Bonaparte had alienated his powerful brother by his marriage to Alexandrine and in 1804 the newly married couple retired to self-imposed exile in Italy. There Lucien pursued a study of art and antiquities, while his wife aspired to become a poet. Around 1807, as a tribute to Alexadrine’s literary efforts, Lucien approached Canova to make a portrait in the tradition of Vigee-Le Brun’s image of Staël.[11] Stael had visited her friend’s Roman studio in 1805, while gathering material for Corinne and a scene in Canova’s studio featured in the novel.[12] Like Lucien, Staël was an exile from Napoleonic France (albeit at the emperor’s formal demand) and a friendship formed around their shared homesickness, love of the antique and belief in a Parnassian ideal of eternal genius which survived in the face of tyranny.

 

It is therefore fitting that fulfilling his commissions to paint the subject of Corinne au Cap Misène as a specific memorial to Madame de Staël, the figure of the doomed poetess dominates the composition. Moreover, Corinne is depicted with the most lucid sense of contour, her skin and drapery is painted in the brightest, purest palette and atop the windy cliffs of the cape she alone appears to be effected by the elements. Her lyre slipping gently from her grasp, Madame de Staël in the guise of Corinne looks upwards and beyond the picture plane, in the same direction as the ends of her peplum streaming in the breeze. It is  almost as if to suggest her death and her apotheosis through the endurance of her writing. After death Stael’s daughter Albertine commissioned Gerard to paint her mother’s portrait (Fig. 5). A comparison between this relatively conventional image and Gerard’s evocation of Stael as the elemental and eternal Corinne shows just how successfully Gerard immortalised his friend by combining a genius for portraiture and his enduring ambitions as a subject painter with his sensitive and literate command of the Romantic.

François Gérard was born in Rome, and at the age of age twelve was admitted to the Pension du Roi and then studied with Augustin Pajou and Nicolas-Guy Brenet before entering the studio of Jacques-Louis David in 1786. Three years later Gerard competed for the Prix de Rome but lost the honour to his friend Girodet. Despite subsequent efforts this particular prize would forever elude him. Eventually personal and financial troubles forced Gerard his to abandon his formal studies amid the upheavals of the Revolution. However, his friendship with his former master, David, enabled him to maintain key connections at this precarious time and by 1794 Gerard’s career finally appeared to take off. That year he entered an official competition for a painting illustrating the abolition of the monarchy on August 10, 1792 and won. Even if his winning composition remained unfinished – due to the regime change and his own lack of commitment – his resulting confidence impelled him towards other projects, such as his very successful collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Isabey, his famous Belisaire. The following year, Gerard’s portrait of Isabey with his small daughter (Paris Musée du Louvre), and his 1799 portrait of Napoleon’s mother, Madame Mère cemented his reputation as one of the premier portraitists now working in France.

Over the next eighteen years, Gérard painted most of all the celebrated figures of the Empire and of the Restoration, many of whom, such as Madame de Staël, Chateaubriand, Tallyrand and the Duke of Wellington were guests as his table as well as sitters in his studio. Gérard’s charm and intellect made his Salon as frequented as  his atelier. Now rich and famous Gérard nevertheless regretted having to abandon his earlier ambitions as a history painter and occasionally tried to prove his mettle in this genre with works like the Bataille d’Austerlitz (1810) and later under the Bourbons, with L’Entrée d’Henri IV à Paris (Versailles). By 1817 Gérard’s career waned, his appeal eclipsed by the burgeoning Romantic school. He was made a member of the Institute  in 1812, enobled as a baron in 1819, was made an officer of the légion d’honneur and was even first painter to Louis-Philippe.

 

 

Fig. 2 : Baron Gérard, Corinne au cap Misène, 1821, Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Fig. 1 : Zachée Prevost, Corinne au cap Misène, engraved after Baron Gérard, 1827.

 

Fig. 3: Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Portrait of Madame de Staël as Corinne, 1808-1809, Geneva, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, inv. no. 1841-3).

 

Fig. 4 : Baron Gérard, Portrait of Madame de Staël, engraved by Laugier (Lemmoret, p. 185.)

 

Fig. 5 : Antonio Canova, The Muse Terpsichore, dated 1816, carrara marble, 177.5 x 78.1 cm), Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art, inv. no. 68.212 1812

 

[1] Corinne au Cap Misène, 1819, oil on canvas, 256 x 277, Lyon, Musée de Beaux-Arts.

[2] In a letter sent from Berlin dated 6 April, 1819, the Prince wrote: ‘En vous térmoigant ma reconnaissance pour cette complaisance, je soumetterai à votre jugement s’il ne serait pas advantageux de répresenter Corinne sous les traits embellis de Madame de Staël, et de choisir le moment de son triomphe du Capitole, où celui ou elle se trouve sur le cap Misène, sans vouloir cependent en rien vous gêner dans la composition de cet ouvrage.’  See Baron H.-Alexandre Gérard and A. Viollet-Le-Duc, Correspondance des François Gérard, peintre d’histoire, avec les artistes et les personnages célèbres de son temps, Paris, 1867, pp.111-113.

[3] Thiers, op. cit., p. 93.

[4] Ibid. p. 43.

[5] F. du Plessix-Gray, Madame de Staël – The First Modern Woman, New York, 2008, p. 7.

[6] Two dinner invitations from Staël to Gerard dated , See H. Gérard and A. Viollet- de-Duc, op. cit., p. 327.

[7] For an account of this plot and Staël’s estrangement from Marie-Antoinette, as well as her heroic efforts to save other aristocrats from the guillotine during the terror, see du Plessix-Gray, op. cit., pp. 63-65 and pp. 77-79.

[8] Ibid, pp. 101-107.

[9] A. Goodden, Madame de Staël, Delphine and Corinne, (trans. Angelica Gooden), London: Grant & Cutler, 2000, p. 65.

[10] See H. O. Borowitz, ‘Two Nineteenth-Century Muse Portraits’, in The Bulletin of the  Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, vol. 66, no. 6 (Sept. 1979), pp. 246-267.

[11] Borowitz, op. cit., p.247.

[12] A.-Louise Germaine, Madame de Staël, Corinne, or Italy, (trans. Emily Baldwin and Paulina Driver), London: Warne, 1883, p. 142.

Type
oil on canvas
Provenance

Commissioned by the Maison du Roi (M. d. R.) under Louis XVIII on October 16, 1820 (paid FF 20,000);

Musée Royal du Luxembourg (inv. no. MR/No 3804, verso);

Taken away by Charles X and offered in 1828 to Madame Zoë Talon, Countess Baschi du Cayla (1785-1852);

Removed from the museum inventory in 1833;

By descent to the Countess’s daughter, Ugoline Baschi du Cayla, wife of Prince Beauvau Craon;

By whom donated to the Marquis Christian de N***, according to the will of the Countess du Cayla;

Thence by descent in the family

 

Literature

A Thiers, Salon de Mil Huit Cent Vingt-Deux, ou Collection des articles insérés au constitutionnel sur l’exposition de cette année, Paris, 1822, p. 43, and pp. 82-92, illustrated  with a lithograph by C. Motte after the 1821 version in Lyon.

Lenormant, François Gérard, peintre d’histoire, Paris, 1847, p.180.

Exhibited

Paris, Salon, 1822, no. 569, as ‘Corinne au cap Misène (M.d.R.).’

Paris, Salon, 1824, no. 746, as ‘Répétition avec divers changemens [sic] du tableau de Corinne’.

Historical Period
Neoclassicism - 1780-1820
Subject
Mythological