From Homer to the Harem: The Art of Jean Lecomte Du Nouy

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IN HIS DEPICTION of subjects from classical myth and literature, Jean Lecomte du Nouy (1842-1923) followed the tenets of the neo-grec (new Greek) movement, whose pioneers included both Charles Gleyre and, most importantly, Jean Leon Gerome, one of its foremost exponents.

These painters, radical in their heyday of the late 1840s and 1850s, redefined the treatment of historical and mythical subjects, shifting narrative emphasis from didactic evocations of universal truth (as exemplified in the work of Jacques-Louis David) towards vignettes of individual experience. In this, they followed the lead of the Troubadour painters, who in the 1820s and 1830s had depicted the world of the Middle Ages and Renaissance through informal, personalized stories.

The first of Lecomte du Nouy's assays in this genre, "The Greek Sentinel" (1865) evokes a passage from Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy, in which a watchman laments his endless task of vigilance for the signal that Troy has fallen. It was completed with the encouragement of three friends who agreed to pose for the arms, hands, and draperies of the painting to spare the young artist the expense of a model.

A year later, "The Invocation to Neptune" (1866) was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon, exempting all of Lecomte du Nouy's later submissions from jutted scrutiny. This picture, a family sacrificing to the sea god to ensure the safe return of a loved one. was inspired by the Homeric Hymns. It drew high praise from the great critic and exponent of l'art pour l'art, Theophile Gautier: "There is nothing to equal the mysterious solemnity of this antique scene," he wrote. "Mr. Lecomte du Nouy has a rare, deep feeling for the Antique. Although the small size of 'The Invocation to Neptune" will mean that it will escape the attention of the crowd, it is nevertheless one of the most serious of the Salon."

Given the painting's size and arresting features, it is unlikely that "'Eros" (1873) escaped anyone's attention. The enormous figure, described by the critic Dubosc de Pesquidoux as "a beautiful pink-toned boy with lascivious eyes" is Surrounded by Cupids with butterfly wings and caskets of jewels. Lecomte du Nouy's highly evocative treatment of this mythological theme was inspired by a small ancient gemstone.

In "The Mendicant Homer" (1875), the artist offers an image of the great poet, blind, destitute, reciting his verses and playing a lyre to eke out a living as he wanders from town to town. An actual classical sculpture, a bust of Homer that Lecomte du Nouy must have known from the copy in the ancient sculpture department at the Louvre obviously influenced the facial features. A conventional reading of this legendary tableau sees the shepherd boy who guides the bard as the genius of poetry, in an allegory of inspiration. But the details emphasized by Lecomte du Nouy's neo-grec interpretation invite the viewer to contemplate the very personal fact of Homer's poverty.

As it had for countless artists before and since, portraiture offered Lecomte du Nouy both a commercially lucrative genre and an opportunity to practice painterly skill, here in pursuit of the academic beau ideal.

In the portraits that Lecomte du Nouy executed in the coarse of his long career, he shows the influence of his teacher Gerome as well as, more distantly, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. This is particularly evident in "Mrs. Eglantine Pujol'" (1869); her image, with its elegant but unostentatious dress, is a typical representation of a 19th-century bourgeoise. The imprint of Ingres is clear in the pose. while the technique and palette are indebted to Gerome. In his later portraits, Lecomte du Nouy inclined more toward the model of his teacher.

"Adolphe Cremieux" (1878) is of particular biographical interest, in that the sitter, a famous Jewish statesman, was the grandfather of Lecomte du Nouy's first wife. The bronze statuette of the Greek orator Demosthenes, standing on the mantle beside the imposing figure of Isaac Adolphe Cremieux, is apt in view of Cremieux's passionate involvement in such political issues of his day as the separation of church and state, free compulsory public education, and general amnesty for those involved in the Paris Commune. …