Despite his indisputable importance in the history of French Renaissance painting, Antoine Caron (1521-1599) remains one of its most mysterious and fascinating figures.
Born in Beauvais in 1521, Caron trained as a master glassmaker and then as a painter at Fontainebleau with Nicolo dell’Abate and Primaticcio. Under their influence, he adopted an Italianising Mannerist style, with skilful drawing and vivid, occasionally strident colours. After becoming painter to the court of Henri II and Catherine de’ Medici in 1561, he came into contact with the learned figures of the Valois entourage and enjoyed depicting rare and unusual subjects as well as contemporary events by means of complex allegories. A prolific illustrator, he provided designs for numerous decorative schemes, notably for the Tapestries of Queen Artemisia as well as for the Valois Tapestries.
Although a number of drawings assuredly by Caron’s hand are known today, only a single painting of his, the Massacres of the Triumvirate (Paris, Musée du Louvre, dated 1566 ; inv. R.F. 1939-28), is signed and dated, and many others that were previously given to him can only be considered with the greatest caution; the vagueness surrounding his personality and his workshop often does not allow for much certainty.
This is also the case for the present composition, known through two other versions that nevertheless include certain variants. The first, of inferior quality and executed on canvas, is in the collection of the Musée de Saumur (inv. 845.1.2). The second, of comparable quality to our work, is that which Jean Ehrmann reproduced in his monograph on the artist (Paris, 1986). If the Saumur version appears to be a late repetition of Caron’s original composition, the two other versions stand comparison with each other, in spite of their differences: for example, the position of the young girl on the pyre differs from one painting to the other. By the same token, the full moon, which figures in our composition, is absent from the one reproduced by Ehrmann; however, we know of the artist’s interest in astronomical events, particularly through his Dionysus the Areopagite converting the pagan philosophers (Los Angeles, The Getty Museum, inv. 85.PG.117) in which he depicted a solar eclipse.
The Death of the woman of Sestos, here as well as in the other versions, contains a number of elements characteristic of Caron’s oeuvre: slender figures from the Italian Mannerist canon, markedly discordant colour and a deliberately fantastical atmosphere which remains one of the distinguishing marks of his art.
On the other hand, Caron’s authorship of The Death of the woman of Sestos is solidly grounded upon an old reference to a work by him representing ‘L’Histoire d’une femme qui brusle, faicte de Caron, sur toille’ (‘the story of a woman who burns, made by Caron, on canvas’) (Archives Nationales, Minutier central, LIX, 48, 1610, 26 August, cited in F. Huber, Antoine Caron – peintre de ville, peintre de Cour – 1521-1599, Tours-Rennes, 2018, p. 310 under cat. 27; see also G.-M. Leproux, ‘Nicolas Leblond et la production de tableaux en série à Paris sous le règne de Henri IV’, Documents d’histoire parisienne, 20, 2018, pp. 26,29 and 41 under inventory number 187).
It should also be noted that a drawing by Etienne Delaune (around 1517/1518-1583), in the collection of the Albertina in Vienna (inv. 24238; fig. 1), also erroneously identified as The Apotheosis of Semele, likely depicts the same subject as the present painting. Better yet, there is an obvious relationship between the figures of the woman of Sestos and the eagle in the two works, which appears to establish a strong link between them.
Moreover, it is not surprising that the iconography of this composition was the object of erroneous interpretations in the past. Long considered a representation of the Apotheosis of Semele (and sometimes even of the death of Dido), in reality the scene depicts a completely different iconography, much less common, of which only a few rare examples are known (aside from Delaune’s drawing, other examples include a sheet by Jan van der Straet, known as Stradanus, in the Louvre, inv. 20517). This is taken from Book X of the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), in the paragraph entitled ‘The marvellous conduct of an eagle’:
‘There is a very famous story about an eagle in the city of Sestos. A young girl had fed and raised an eagle, who, when fully grown, showed its gratitude to its benefactress by bringing her at first birds, and in due time various game. However the girl died, and as her body was burning upon a pyre, the eagle appeared unexpectedly, threw itself into the flames, and burned with her. In memory of this event, the people of Sestos erected a temple in honour of Jupiter and the maiden on the same spot.’
Antoine Caron’s taste for unusual and complex subjects is particularly obvious here. The nocturnal atmosphere, the strange and poetic light emanating both from the moon and the fire on which the young woman lies, her nudity displaying the delicacy of porcelain, the presence of a procession of ghostly figures or the astonishing gesture of the eagle plunging into the flames: all of these combine to create a curious allegory imbued with mystery. The magical singularity of the composition did not escape the more modern spirits of the Surrealists. Indeed, André Breton himself chose this composition (by way of the painting reproduced by Ehrmann) to illustrate the frontispiece of one of the volumes of L’Art magique. Some years later, it was Georges Bataille’s turn to be seduced by the esoteric and hermetic character of the painting, and he featured the composition in the frontispiece of the original edition of Les Larmes d’Eros (1961).