EUSTACHE LE SUEUR (1616 - Paris - 1655)
Allegory of Poetry
Oil on canvas: 130 x 97.5 cm/ 51 ⅛ x 38 ⅜ inches
Although the present painting was unknown to Alain Mérot at the time of the publication of his 1987 catalogue raisonné on the artist, he has subsequently fully endorsed its attribution to Le Sueur, and its rediscovery has been fully discussed by Elvire de Maintenant (op. cit., under Literature). The painting, kept for generations in the same family, was unknown to art historians until the day it was found in January 2009 “hanging more than five meters high on a staircase in a castle near Paris”. The painting was anonymous and had never been published. However, an old family tradition indicated its provenance was the Hôtel Lambert in Paris.
The Hôtel Lambert is a celebrated residence located at the tip of the Ile Saint-Louis where the river Seine divides. The beauty of the architecture designed by the young Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) and the magnificence of the decor by the most famous French painters of the Grand Siècle make it an enchanting place. The construction of this private residence began in 1639 for the financier Jean-Baptiste Lambert who finally moved in at Easter in 1644. But Jean-Baptiste did not enjoy the magnificent setting for very long, as he died, childless, on 22nd December of the same year. The Hôtel was inherited by his brother Nicolas Lambert de Thorigny (died in 1692) and by descent to other members of his family, then after 1729 it belonged to various owners. Among the latter was the beautiful, educated and brilliant Marquise du Châtelet, Voltaire’s mistress. As explained by Elvire de Maintenant, the owners of the Allegory of Poetry at the time of its recent rediscovery were the direct descendants of Marc-Antoine Delahaye de Bazinville (1702-1785), whose brother Marin Delahaye had bought the illustrious hotel from the Marquise du Châtelet in 1745. Consequently the painting appears in an inventory dated 13 October 1753 drawn up at the Hôtel Lambert after the death of the wealthy Marin Delahaye. The painting was then listed among the paintings kept for de Bazinville:
“1378 : Item un tableau peint sur toille par Eustache Le Sueur representant La Musique sous la forme d’une femme ailée qui tient une trompette et une basse viole, dans sa bordure dorée, prisé cinq cens livres”
Put aside for the brother of the deceased, the Allegory was not included in the posthumous sale of Marin Delayahe’s paintings held the following year (nor did it appear in 1778 at his widow’s sale). Kept by Marc-Antoine Delahaye de Bazinville, it later belonged to his son who hung it first in the Hôtel Fieubet (built near the île Saint-Louis, on the right bank) before taking it in 1813 to a castle near Paris. This is where the painting was rediscovered, almost two centuries later.
The painting is documented in the Hôtel Lambert on 31 March 1739, when Claude Dupin’s family, then owner of the Hôtel, sold the building to Madame du Châtelet. A document annexed to the deed of sale mentions in the “Grand Cabinet”:
“Deux dessus de porte avec leurs bordures dorées, l’un représentant une Musique et l‘autre un jeu de dez par des soldats espagnols”
Voltaire’s name does not appear on the deeds relating to this sale. However, Madame du Châtelet’s friend was directly interested in the acquisition of the Hôtel Lambert as he indicates in writing to d’Argental on 27 October 1738: “we could well buy the Hôtel Lambert in Paris, not to have a palace but a place to be alone” [« nous pourrions bien acheter l’Hôtel Lambert à Paris, non comme palais mais comme solitude »]. In the following years the Hôtel appears again in his correspondence:
“Mon cher abbé, je vous donne rendez-vous un jour au palais Lambert ; ah ! que de tableaux et de curiosités si j’ai de l’argent ! allez donc voir mon appartement. C’est celui où est la galerie destinée à la bibliothèque”
This indication given in a letter to the Abbot Moussinot (6 April 1739) enable us to locate Voltaire’s apartment among the other “grands appartements”: it was very likely the magnificent succession of rooms, situated between the gardens and the courtyard on the first floor, that included the “Grand Cabinet” where the Allegory of Poetry was placed, near the “Cabinet de l’Amour (still decorated at the time by the celebrated ensemble of paintings that would enter the royal collections in 1776).
Le Sueur’s painting was moved when the two overdoors in the “Grand Cabinet”, (which did not form a pair) were replaced by a pair of paintings with biblical subjects (explicitly erotic): Susanna and the Elders by Jean-François de Troy and Joseph and Potiphar’s wife by Charles Coypel (very likely
the painting exhibited at the 1737 Salon). While the date of this change is not known, it probably occurred at the same time as the very old relining of the canvas that left the original nails and its Louis XV frame in place (see lit, E. de Maintenant).
Even if Voltaire seems to have never occupied his grand apartment in the Hôtel Lambert, he could have seen the Allegory on various occasions during the visits to Paris he made in the company of Madame du Châtelet in the 1740s (between 1735 and 1749 the couple mostly lived in the castle of Cirey but Madame du Châtelet spent five weeks in the Hôtel in 1742). Just before the beginning of his affair with Madame du Châtelet, in 1733, the philosopher had published a long poetic text, Temple du gôut, in which he mentioned Le Sueur. The acquisition of the Hôtel sparked off new praises. Voltaire lauded the painter, in particular in the letters he sent to Frederick, the future King of Prussia, inviting him to come and stay in Paris in the prestigious Hôtel. Furthermore, here are a few lines in a letter sent from Brussels on 1 September 1740:
Heureux l’hôtel du Châtelet, le cabinet des Muses, la galerie d’Hercule, le salon de l’amour !
Le Sueur et Lebrun, nos illustres Apelles,
Ces rivaux de l’antiquité,
Ont en ces lieux charmants étalé la beauté
De leurs peintures immortelles.
Les neuf sœurs elles-mêmes ont orné ce séjour
Pour en faire leur sanctuaire.
Elles avaient prévu qu’il recevrait un jour
Celui qui des neuf sœurs est le juge et le père
Unfortunately there are no documents mentioning Le Sueur’s painting prior to 1739. Inventories brought to light during Jean-Pierre Babelon’s extensive research leave aside the paintings that were inserted in fixed elements of the decor (panelling, overdoors, ceilings). It is only at the time of the acquisition of the Hôtel by Madame du Châtelet that these paintings were listed. However the paintings that have been preserved as well as the documents that have been found enable us to establish with some degree of certainty the chronology of the works by Le Sueur. Two ceilings with mythological subjects that have not been removed from the hotel, along with the Rape of Ganymede (now in the Louvre, Paris), were probably painted before 1644. But the greater part of the celebrated decor was painted after Nicolas Lambert de Thorigny had become the new owner following his brother’s death. The works were executed in two campaigns: during the years 1646-1647, Le Sueur decorated the “Cabinet de l’Amour” (or “Cabinet doré”). Then during the 1650s, on the second floor of the right aisle, Le Brun painted the “Galerie d’Hercule” while Le Sueur worked on the “Chambre des Muses”, from 1652 until his death in 1655.
The style of the Allegory of Poetry is reminiscent of the first works created for Jean-Baptiste Lambert, at the beginning of the 1640s. The facial features of the young pensive woman are similar to that of the Nereid in the Triumph of Galatea painted by Le Sueur at that time: the painting (now in the collection Milgrom, Sceaux) is still reliant on Simon Vouet’s art to whom it was attributed to for a long time. The sensuality of Le Sueur’s first master strongly influenced the Allegory. A comparison with another painting is equally possible: Tobias and Sara’s wedding night (now in the BNP-Paribas collection, Paris), painted for Gaspard Fieubet, shows in the background an isolated pensive figure on a Roman seat, her legs covered by heavy drapery. In
both paintings, Le Sueur gives his figures the volumes of an antique statue. Also reminiscent of antiquity is the stone table where Poetry rests her elbow, soberly moulded as if waiting for an inscription to be carved. Though Le Sueur never went to Rome, he could have known prints by Mellan or Perrier and his taste for antiquity would fully develop later in the “Chambre des Muses”.
The eighteenth-century century documents mentioned above gave the painting the title of La Musique. This was justified by the presence of the viola and the trumpet that both have a prominent place in the composition. However the painting’s iconography is more complex. Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, published for the first time in Rome in 1583, provides the clues. In the French translation of 1643-1644 by Jean Baudoin and illustrated by J. de Bie, the depiction of Poetry is described as follows:
“Elle a le visage un peu enflammé, l’action d’une personne pensive, une Couronne de Laurier sur la teste, les mammelles nuës & rebondies, comme si elles estoient pleines de laict, une Robe de couleur celeste, toute semée d’Estoilles, une Lyre en la main gauche, & en la droite une manière de Haut-bois, ou de Fluste”
Le Sueur faithfully follows these indications. But he differs in three points: Poetry’s magnificent lapis lazuli dress is not scattered with stars while both the lyre and the oboe (or the flute) have been replaced by a viola and a trumpet. These instruments are often associated in Greek mythology with on the one hand Erato, muse of lyric poetry and on the other hand Calliope, muse of heroic poetry. Therefore, Le Sueur strays from a text that had become canonical in order to reinforce and enrich his Allegory of Poetry.
Such a painting is particularly representative of the rich artistic and literary culture of Paris in the middle of the seventeenth century. Along with others, Le Sueur embodies the generation trained in Vouet’s workshop that made Paris one of the greatest artistic centres in Europe. Like Tristan and Scudéry, writers and poets formed part of this movement. In this literary world one personality held a particular place: Mr de Gomberville, with whom Le Sueur had a close relationship. A successful poet and writer – his Polexandre was reedited 6 times between 1629 and 1645 – de Gomberville (1600-1674) had been a member of the Académie française since its creation. He asked Le Sueur to illustrate his La doctrine des moeurs, lavishly published in 1646. But the relationship between the two men was not limited to that of a writer and his illustrator. Gomberville’s name appears at the back of a sheet (now in the Louvre) on which Le Sueur sketched one of the ceilings of the “Cabinet de l’Amour”: although the writing is somewhat illegible, one can decipher “Monsieur de Gomberville” and further down “les desseins” (the drawings). Therefore, one wonders what role the man of letters had at the Hôtel Lambert and if indeed he contributed to the definition of the decorative program.
A new element can be added to this hypothesis. The volume published in July 1646, Epitres du sieur de Bois-Robert, contains verses that may very well be the first literary mention of the Hôtel Lambert. Speaking to Mr. de Campagno, Boisrobert, a society poet with links to the nobility and the establishment, is surprised by his audacity to give a dinner for his friends after they had been to the residence of ‘the rich Mr Lambert’:
“Quoy ! te mesler apres Lambert
De mettre chez toy le couvert ?
Et tu traittes le plus riche homme
Qui soit de Paris jusqu’à Romme ?
Souvien-toi de son beau logis
Cette Maison si bien plantee
Qu’elle paroist estre enchantee ;
Des rares meubles de sa chambre,
Où l’on sent, dans le Musc & l’Ambre,
Malgré l’aspre froid de ce temps,
Un air aussi doux qu’au Printemps.”
We think that ‘the rich Mr Lambert’ can only be Jean-Baptiste, as Tallemant des Réaux in his Historiettes described him similarly. In the following verses, Boisrobert mentions his circle of friends: financiers and aristocrats –Hesselin, Gédéon, Tallemant- who mix with writers such as Flotte and the great poet François Mainard who published in the same year his Oeuvres with a foreword by Gomberville and Gomberville himself. Hence, the author of Polexandre and the Doctrine des moeurs, this ‘great friend of Le Sueur’s’, was also closely linked with Lambert and visited his newly built Hôtel. Himself a poet – he had collaborated in 1641 in the famous Guirlande de Julie – Gomberville may have been the person behind the Allegory of Poetry’s original iconography that freely draws inspiration from Ripa’s text. There is no firm proof, but one can picture a conversation between Lambert, the writer and the painter, all gathered in front of the painting. Let’s imagine the painting is back on the wall of the “Grand Cabinet”, above the door that leads to the “Cabinet de l’Amour”. Above the entrance, it seems to herald the whole decor realised by Eustache le Sueur in this residence. The Allegory of Poetry sets the tone of the Hôtel Lambert.
Mme de Fontaine, Hôtel Lambert, 1739 (mentioned in the sale contract drawn up on 31 March 1739 between Madame de Fontaine, her brother-in-law Claude Dupin and Florent Claude, Marques of Châtelet and his wife, Gabrielle Emilie de Breteuil)
Marin Delahaye, owner of the Hôtel Lambert from 1745 to 1753 (inventory catalogue 13 October 1753, no. 1378)
Given by the latter to his brother Marc-Antoine Delahaye de Bazinville (mentioned in Marin Delahaye’s post-mortem inventory on 13 October 1753, no. 1378 (Minutier Central, LVII-408)
Thence by descent
Sale Paris (Christie’s), 23 June 2009, no. 88, ill.
C. Bailey, “Poussin’s L’Enfance de Bacchus newly identified in two eighteenth-century collections”, Mélanges en homage à Pierre Rosenberg, Paris 2001, p. 70, appendix I
E. de Maintenant, “Redécouverte d’une oeuvre de jeunesse d’Eustache Le Sueur provenant de l’hôtel Lambert”, L’Estampille – Objet d’Art (2009), no. 447, June, pp. 26, 27, ill.
Le Sueur was one of the most important painters of historical, mythological and religious pictures in seventeenth-century France, and one of the founders of French classicism. He was long considered the “French Raphael” and the equal of Nicolas Poussin and Charles Le Brun. Le Sueur never left Paris, and around 1632, his precocious talents gained him entry into the busiest and most famous studio in the capital, that of Simon Vouet, who had returned from Italy in 1627. Le Sueur remained there until about 1642, assimilating Vouet’s richness and breadth of touch as a decorative painter. However, even from an early date, a note of sensuality and refinement in his use of colour distinguish his work from that of his master. Influenced by prints after Raphael and works by Poussin (who was in Paris from 1640 to 1642), Le Sueur’s style became increasingly classical, as witnessed by his work in Hotel Lambert, whilst at the same time retaining its characteristic elegance and grace, its harmony and its freshness of tone. Thus, through his dual knowledge of the work of Simon Vouet and Nicolas Poussin, Le Sueur was in a sense the product of two Roman workshops transported to Paris. His reputation soared: in 1648 he was elected to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, where he was one of the twelve founder-members, and in 1649 he was appointed Peintre Ordinaire du Roi. Le Sueur’s death at the young age of thirty-eight left Le Brun to assume the position in France of premier peintre. A gifted and prolific draughtsman, he had no direct successor, but his work was greatly admired by subsequent artists, among them Eugène Delacroix, who wrote “A single figure by him is a perfect harmony of line and effect, and when many figures are assembled in one picture everything is brought into harmony”.
None of the artists from “The First School of Paris”, Philippe de Champaigne, Eustache Le Sueur, Laurent de La Hyre, made the traditional journey to Italy, until then considered indispensable. Whether they painted scenes from the Old or New Testament, or mythological and allegorical subjects, all of them used a polished finish without marked impasto, light colours juxtaposed with boldness yet with refinement, and studied modelling – all of which favour line over brushwork, eschew motion, and accord importance to the careful ordering of the composition. The trembling sensuality if these artists’ early works, their refined elegance and clearly decorative content are later replaced by an increasing severity, and unyielding austerity, and extreme stylization – at times close to Neoclassicism, at times close to the style of Ingres. Indeed, Ingres wrote of Le Sueur: “Eustache Le Sueur: gentle child of Raphael’s works, who, without leaving Paris, understood that which was beautiful and brought forth marvels of grace and sublime simplicity” [Delaborde, 1870, p.163].
Le Sueur’s precocity as a young artist is visible in the facility and lyricism of some of his principle early works such as his Sea Gods paying Homage to Love (J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu), based on Francesco Colonna’s 1499 romance Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, The Gathering of Friends (Musée du Louvre, Paris), Sleeping Venus (The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco) and the recently rediscovered present painting. Without ever being entirely free of his master’s influence, Le Sueur evolves a style that is uniquely his own. More supple in his handling than Vouet, with a more delicate and refined sensuality and a better feeling for colour, Le Sueur was from the beginning a more lyrical and poetic artist, who succeeded in infusing French painting with the capacity for retaining innocence in grandeur and strength in tenderness. His range of colours are entirely his own: rare blues and violets, crystalline hues, and cold whites.
To fully appreciate what Jacques Thuillier dubbed as Le Sueur’s “Atticism” (a fusion of contemporary Roman culture with the classicizing intentions of the French court), it must be remembered that the artist was a keen music lover and intimate friend of the most famous French lutenist of the epoch, Denis Gaultier, with whom he is represented in his early masterpiece of circa 1640, The Gathering of Friends (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Both of them were patronized by Anne de Chambre, Trésorier des Guerres under Louis XIII and gentleman of the prince de Conde, who commissioned the magnificent manuscript Le Rhetorique des dieux, a collection of compositions for lute illustrated by Le Sueur (see, for example, Denis Gaultier’s frontispiece for Le Rhetorique des dieux of circa 1652 after a drawing by Le Sueur in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin). The humanist poetry of Le Sueur’s painting corresponds perfectly to the elusive yet modest and penetrating lyricism of this music. In Le Sueur the somewhat official style Vouet, his master, blended with private taste, which incorporated court culture more intimately and in a more delicately exacting fashion. Paris thus witnessed the resurgence of a dialectic between official and privately patronized art, earlier responsible for the vitality of Roman culture, and Anne de Chambre is the classic example of the wealthy and enlightened art lover, of whom there had been no notable forerunners in France for a long time.
Together with Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, Herman van Swanevelt and other painters, Le Sueur decorated the Cabinet de l’Amour (circa 1646-1648) and the Chambre des Muses (1652) in the Hotel Lambert on the Isle Saint-Louis, Paris. Commissioned by Jean-Baptiste Lambert, Hotel Lambert (begun in 1639 and finished circa 1641-1642) is Louis Le Vau’s masterpiece among his early town houses, and stands today as one of the most important Parisian hotels to survive from the seventeenth century. The brothers Jean-Baptiste Lambert (1608-1644) and Nicolas Lambert (circa 1610-1692) belonged to a group of financiers and servants of the Crown who made great fortunes in last years of the reign of Louis XIII and during the minority of Louis XIV, and were among the most munificent patrons of the period.
We are grateful to Jean Claude Boyer for the above entry