François-André Vincent Paris 1746 - 1816
- François-André Vincent
- Zeuxis Choosing his models for the image of Helen from Among the girls of Croton
- oil on canvas
With Matthiesen Fine Art & Stair Sainty Matthiesen, where purchased by the present owner.
François-André Vincent was, with Jacques-Louis David, the primary exponent of the masculine, neoclassical style of painting which developed in the years before the French Revolution, almost in anticipation of it. His range and facility with narrative were considerable, and the development of his personal idiom, away from the somewhat rococo style that he had mastered in his youth, towards a more powerful and innovative manner in the 1780s had occurred with great rapidity. By the time he had conceived the composition of Zeuxis Choosing his Models for the image of Helen from among the Girls of Croton, he had developed fully and had won a place amongst the first rank of artists, and was the only serious rival to David in the field of history painting.
The comparison of David and Vincent, while often made, is perhaps particularly appropriate in the present case. This Zeuxis is, in fact, a reduced autograph replica of a monumental canvas by Vincent, now in the collection of the Musée du Louvre. The artist had been given the commission for that painting in 1785 by the Comte d'Angiviller in his powerful position as Surintendant des Bâtiments, the minister in charge of handing out royal commissions. One of Angiviller's prime goals in this role had been an attempt to revive the art of grand history painting in France, and so it was only natural that he turned to Vincent, who had clearly been proving himself to be one of that genre's most talented practitioners. What was perhaps more surprising, and certainly something which the wily Angiviller must have known would be sure to produce exemplary results, was that the commission was given in tandem with another artist. Both Vincent and his rival Jacques-Louis David were each to produce in time for the 1787 Salon a painting of a classical subject of their choice. The paintings were to be pendants, and thus should be the same dimensions and on the same compositional scale.
Neither artist had completed their paintings in the time allotted, and it was only until the Salon of 1789, the last one held under the ancien régime, that the two pictures were exhibited publicly. David had chosen first the subject of Coriolanus, but abandoned it, for whatever reason, and had settled on the subject of the Lictors bringing Brutus the bodies of his Dead Sons (Louvre, Paris). Vincent had selected a milder subject, but perhaps equally revealing of his own artistic temperament, Zeuxis Choosing his Models for the image of Helen from among the Girls of Croton.
The story of Zeuxis is recounted in more than one ancient source, but most completely in Cicero's De Inventione (Book II, chapter 1). Zeuxis of Heraclea, one of the most famous artists of the day, had been hired by the town fathers of Croton, in the south of Italy, to paint a picture which was to hang in a prominent place in the Temple of Juno. The choice of the subject was left to the artist and he choose to paint a portrait of Helen of Troy. This pleased his patrons as Zeuxis was particularly famous for his paintings of women, and it was thus more likely that he would create an enduring masterpiece. In order to achieve this perfection, however, the artist asked that the townsmen let him inspect the most beautiful girls of the town, and select a model from among them. Ballots were cast and five maidens were chosen; Zeuxis, however, realizing that while art may be perfect, nature often was not, and he thus examined all his prospective models, choosing from each their most beautiful and sublime feature, and thus by amalgamating all of them into one portrait, create the ideal image of Helen.
Rather than the political commentary afforded by David's Brutus, Vincent's Zeuxis was more likely an artistic observation on the creative process and the position of the painter in contemporary culture. Like the Zeuxis, Vincent had chosen his own subject, and had strived by the rational observation of nature to arrive at perfection. His careful study of classical antiquity is displayed throughout the composition, in the friezes on the wall above the young women, as well as the sculpture of Minerva and more unusually the accurate depiction of the Attic pottery on the table to the right of Zeuxis, which Vincent has re-imagined as the artist's brushpots. The outlines of the figure of Helen have already been laid on the canvas next to the young maidens, and Zeuxis reaches out his hand in order to pose them, exhort them, and perhaps—as suggested by the girl at right who turns to her chaperone in tears—dismiss them.
The Zeuxis was a great success at the Salon, and received general critical acclaim, one critic even noting that it was so well realized that Vincent appears to have had fun painting it. It is not surprising, therefore, that Vincent would reprise the composition a second time, and in a reduced format, more suitable for a collector's gallery. This smaller version is almost certainly the painting that the Comte d'Angiviller mentioned in a letter of December 3rd, 1791, written to Vincent's old master Vien, ordering him not to move the Brutus and the Zeuxis to the Gobelins with other royal pictures, as the two artists wished to make replicas of them. If so, Vincent did not copy himself exactly, but made slight variations in the composition, such as changing the color of some of robes worn by the Crotonese women. There are more significant changes as well; three figures at the extreme right edge have been removed entirely, while the older attendant who removes the central model's wrap is given more prominence. The two figures at the lower right are entirely reinterpreted, with the crying girl in the present canvas finding a place on the stairs. Her companion in the Louvre painting holds her and looks down at her, while in this canvas she is shown staring icily at Zeuxis, in perfect, neoclassical profile. Perhaps most telling, however, is that the young model who must have served as the paradigm for Helen's torso is less covered than in the larger Louvre version, and shows more of her hips and buttocks. Such overt eroticism, less appropriate for the public display of the Salon, would have been certainly more welcome in a private home. The history of this painting remains elusive—it was only rediscovered in the mid 1990s in a small sale in England (see provenance), thus suggesting it had remain in private hands since it had been painted.