Laurent de La Hyre
- Laurent de La Hyre
- Allegory of Geometry
- signed and dated on the stone plinth, lower center: L. DE LA HIRE . in. & . F. 1649
- oil on canvas
- 40 x 85 inches
His deceased sale, Paris, 8 March 1830, lot 6;1
French private collection, by 1988;
Anonymous sale, Paris, Beaussant & Lefèvre, 21 November 1991, lot 44, for FF 2,700,000.
P. Rosenberg, "L'Astronomie", in Nouvelles acquisitions du Museé d'Orléans, exhibition catalogue, Paris 1976-1977, p. 48;
P. Rosenberg, "La Hyre", in La peinture francaise du XVIIe siècle dans les collections américaines, exhibition catalogue, Paris, New York and Chicago 1982, p. 251;
P. Rosenberg and J. Thullier, Laurent de la Hyre 1606 - 1656, L'homme et l'oeuvre, exhibition catalogue, Geneva 1988, p. 295, cat. no. 256;
H. Wine, National Gallery Catalogues: The Seventeenth Century French Paintings, London 2001, pp. 192-193.
La Hyre's series was dispersed sometime between 1760 and 1793. At present we know of nine paintings that belonged to the original group, seven representations of the liberal arts, all shown as large half-length figures of women surrounded by their attributes, and two, smaller, full-length figures of putti. They include: Grammar, London, National Gallery; Rhetoric and Logic (sometimes referred to as Dialectic), Swiss Private Collection; Arithmetic, Heino, The Netherlands, Hannema-de Stuers Fundatie; Music, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Geometry, the present work; Astronomy, Orleans, Musée des Beaux-Arts (fig. 1); A Putto Playing a Bass Viol and A Putto Singing, Dijon, Musée Magnin. Geometry is the first from the original series to come onto the market in more than four decades.
The conception of the Seven Liberal Arts dates from late antiquity. They were seen as the building blocks of learning, distinct from philosophy, the basis of all knowledge, and from the manual arts, like agriculture and architecture. The Liberal Arts were depicted as women as early as the fifth century, but La Hyre’s compositions are largely influenced by Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, published in Rome in 1603; the first edition in French dates from 1644.
The existence of the series was noted by Philippe de La Hyre (1640-1718), Laurent’s son, and by Guillet de Saint-George, the first historian of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture.2 It was commissioned by Gédéon Tallemant, a counselor and Maître de Requêtes to Louis XIV, and a man of famously extravagant habits. The paintings were for his house in the Marais district of Paris. There are no records of the actual disposition of the pictures, but because they are of different sizes and formats, various arrangements have been suggested.3 Geometry and Astronomy are the largest and have virtually the same dimensions; they are both oblongs, their width nearly twice their height. Music is somewhat shorter (105.7 by 144.1 cm.) and has probably been slightly reduced in height. The two small paintings of putti were undoubtedly intended to flank Music and it is likely there were originally similar figures that would have hung next to Geometry and Astronomy. The remaining four Arts are slightly shorter and almost square in proportions.
The Allegory of Geometry is one of the most important works in the series, given the close relationship between geometry and the visual arts. This is particularly true of French 17th century painting, when the various modes of depicting perspective were being fiercely debated by the Academicians. In the center of the composition sits the embodiment of geometry, leaning on a block of marble. In her right hand is a sheet of paper with a diagram of the golden section and three Euclidian proofs, which she holds up for the viewer to see. In her left hand is a compass and a right angle, tools of a mathematician and geometer.4 Surrounding her are references to the practical applications of geometry, beginning at the left with a painting set on an easel, the painter’s palette and brushes affixed below. The globe next to it stands for the earth, but also is a product of geometry, as geometry underpins the process of mapmaking. The snake above is an attribute for the goddess Ceres, an older representation of the earth. Next is a relief, an example of the art of sculpture, also dependent on geometry, though the carving itself is conceived in the style of the 16th or 17th century, not antiquity. At the right is a sphinx, representing Egypt, where an early form of geometry was invented, but the large crack in its back represents the flaws in the Egyptian approach; it was not until the advent of Euclid that modern geometry was developed.
This complex but elegant composition is characteristic of La Hyre’s paintings at the height of his career. The figure of Geometry, with her regular features and strong limbs embodies the classical formula developed in the Académie, where La Hyre was a professor. Set amongst a receding series of rectangular blocks of marble, she occupies a clearly defined space in which balance is maintained. La Hyre’s brush strokes are regular and his color subdued, so that the vivid orange of her drapery literally highlights her figure.
There are copies of three of the paintings of the Liberal Arts: two in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Grammar and Arithmetic; and a third, a copy of Geometry, in the Toledo Museum of Art. The last is truncated at the lateral sides so that the easel is cropped off at the left and the background pyramid absent at the right. While these were once thought to represent alternate versions by La Hyre, the quality of the pictures is such that they are now recognized as straight-forward copies, possibly made while the originals were still in La Hyre’s studio. 5 The idea that they were part of a second version of the series made for a relative of Tallemant living in Rouen has been raised, but is at present uncertain.6
1. The picture in the Brunet sale is not called Geometry but is described as "l'étude des sciences et des arts". However, it is paired with Astronomy, strong suggesting from both the iconography and the dimensions that it is, indeed, the present painting. See H. Wine, op. cit., p. 193, note 26.
2. P. Rosenberg, 1998, op. cit. p.292.
3. Ibid. pp. 293-294 and H. Wine, op. cit. pp. 191-192.
4. This descriptive analysis of the iconography is based on Eunice Williams discussion of the copy of the Allegory of Geometry, in the Toledo Museum of Art. See E. Williams in Gods & Heroes: Baroque Images of Antiquity, exhibition catalogue, Wildenstein New York, 1968, pp. 42-43.
5. H. Wine, op. cit., p. 192.