As an artist, he has been spoken of as the father of French Neoclassical landscape painting and an artist, who was for landscape painting what Jaques-Louis David was for history painting, so how can I ignore this eminent and much honoured French painter.
My featured artist today is Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, who was born in Toulouse in 1750. He studied at the Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture of Toulouse, under the tutelage of the local history painter and pastelist, Jean-Baptiste Despax, an artist who had spent much of his life in the decoration of churches and monasteries in and around the French city. It is probably from him that Valenciennes became familiar with the iconography of conventional classical and biblical subjects. Another of Valenciennes’ early teachers was the miniaturist, Guillaume Gabriel Bouton.
When Valenciennes was nineteen years of age his work came to the attention of Mathias Du Bourg, a prominent and wealthy Toulouse lawyer, merchant and councillor at the Toulouse parliament, who became his patron. In 1769 Du Bourg invited Valenciennes to accompany him on a trip to Rome where he stayed for two years before returning home. At the end of that year, 1771, Valenciennes went to live in Paris and, through the recommendation of Du Bourg, managed to get himself a placement in the studio of Gabriel-François Doyen, who at the time was one of the leading French history painters. Another person Du Bourg introduced Valenciennes to was Etienne-François, comte de Stainville, Duc de Choiseul, a French military officer, diplomat and statesman who became another of Valenciennes’ patrons. Valenciennes would often spend time at the country estate of his new patron and soon developed an interest in the native landscape.
In 1777, Valenciennes made another trip to Italy and this time remained there for almost eight years. He travelled extensively around what was then termed the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, which was the largest of the Italian States, prior to Italian unification and extended south of Rome and included the island of Sicily. Valenciennes also found great pleasure in journeying around the campagna, the low-lying area which surrounds Rome. He did return once to Paris in 1781 where he met and received tuition from Claude-Joseph Vernet. Vernet strongly urged him to work en plein air. In 1787, Valenciennes applied to become a member of the Académie Royale and following a short probationary period and the submission of his reception piece, a historical and imaginary landscape work entitled Cicero Uncovering the Tomb of Archimedes, he was accepted into the hallowed institution. His painting was one of two Salon works which he had accepted at the Paris Salon that year. From this first submission to the Paris Salon, Valenciennes would exhibit annually, large landscape works there until 1819, the year of his death. Valenciennes quickly established his reputation at the Salon as a painter of paysage historique (historical landscapes inspired by mythology and Greek antiquity). These large-scale works which represented imaginary visions of the classical past, earned Valenciennes the title, “the David of landscape.”
Once he established himself at the Academy, he opened his own studio in 1796. At this time, the European Academies believed in a strict hierarchy in figurative art, which had originally been postulated for painting in 16th century Italy and which still held good two centuries later. The hierarchy was:
History painting which also included works which had narrative religious mythological and allegorical subjects
Genre painting which were scenes of everyday life
Landscape painting and cityscapes and cityscape
Still life painting
Many artists would not accept the Academy’s hierarchal approach and would invent new genres and by doing so, raised the lower subjects to the importance of history painting. Joshua Reynolds, the English portraitist, achieved this by inventing the portraiture style that was known as the Grand Manner in which his works flattered his sitters by likening them to mythological characters. The French artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau invented a genre that was known as fetes gallants in which he would depict scenes of courtly amusements which took place in Arcadian setting. These often had a poetic and allegorical quality, which, as such, were considered to elevate them within the hierarchy. Valenciennes, like many landscape artists before him such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, endeavoured to elevate the status of their landscape work by incorporating mythological figures into their works.
Claude had ennobled his paintings of the Roman countryside by adding biblical and classical narrative references and by doing this enforced an idealized vision of balance and harmony on the world before him. This emphasis on timeless landscapes augmented with historical vignettes could be seen in Valenciennes’ large salon landscape paintings. Valenciennes was adamant that the status of landscape painting should be elevated. In his efforts to see this through he put out a famous treatise entitled Élémens de perspective pratique à l’usage des artistes (Reflections and Advice to a Student on Painting, Particularly on Landscape) in which he gave landscape painting the full practical and theoretical examination it was due but which up until then had been denied. This work remained the most influential treatise on landscape painting for decades to come. Things did change in the nineteenth century France with French landscape painting undergoing a remarkable transformation from a minor genre, rooted in classical traditions, to a primary vehicle for artistic experimentation.
In 1812 Valenciennes was appointed Professor of Perspective at the École Impérial ses Beaux-Arts, a position he held for the next four years. During his time at the art school he managed to nurture an up and coming set of French landscape artists, such as Nicolas Bertin, Achille Michalon and Jean-Baptiste Deperthes. In 1816 the Académie even encouraged Valenciennes’ favoured painting genre, paysage historique (historical landscape painting), by presenting a special Prix de Rome award for the best landscape painting. Much to Valenciennes’ delight the first winner of the award went to Michallon, one of his students.
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes died in Paris in 1819, aged 68 and is buried in the Parisian Père Lachaise Cemetery.
My featured work today by Valenciennes is one he completed in 1790 and exhibited at the Salon the following year along with six other landscape paintings. It is entitled Classical Greek Landscape with Girls Sacrificing Their Hair to Diana on the Bank of a River.
When young girls wanted to marry, they were asked to lay their personal belongings of their virginity on an altar to Artemis (Diana). They were such things as toys, dolls, and locks of hair. This represented their transition from childhood to adulthood closing the door of the domain of the virgin goddess forever. In ancient times, hair, and the way it was worn, identified class and status. Young girls and unmarried women wore their hair long and loose but once they were married it was coiled upon their heads; prostitutes and women of easy morals coifed their hair in elaborate ringlets and curls. The girls’ short hair now identified them as virgins dedicated to perpetual chastity in the image of Diana, with a consequential curtailment of fertility. When he painted this picture in 1790, Valenciennes was at the height of his artistic career and had already established himself as the master of the paysage historique genre.
In the foreground of this work we can see a small lake. To the right of the lake there is a marble statue of the goddess Diana, under a leafy arbour, holding her bow with a small stag standing by her side. On the far side of the lake we can see a circular altar, which looks very much like the base of a large column. Around this altar we see three young women. On the altar we can see hair that two have laid down as a sacrifice to Diana whilst we see the third woman in the process of cutting off locks of her hair. In the middle ground we can just make out two other women standing in an open sunlit plain pointing towards a stream on the left middle ground where we can just make out more women who are in the process of drying their washed clothes on a large stony outcrop. The building behind the plain is a circular fort along with its high stone walls which divide the composition into two diverse zones.
On the other side of the walls of the fort, to the left, we can see a range of desolate and infertile hills extending into the distance. The Temple of the Sibyl can also be seen atop a mountainous outcropping at left of composition. If we look closely at the hinterland and beyond, on the other side of the wall, we can make out a number of impressive buildings which extend across the plain. In this beautiful landscape painting, the viewer’s eyes quickly pass over the small figures shown in the foreground and are lifted to the expansive and idyllic natural space that stretches into the distance. Even the statue of the goddess directs her attention to the landscape. So even though Valenciennes has added a touch of mythology to his work he seemed more interested in the natural landscape which he hopes will occupy most of our gazes.
The painting is housed at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in South Hadley, Massachusetts which was founded in 1876 and was one of the first collegiate museums in the United States.