La mort de Cléopâtre. Circa 1818.

Oil on canvas, measures 27.4 x 37.3 cm. Inscription on the back: "La mort de Cléopâtre / October 1818 / Concours d'esquisses peints / Pierre Narcisse Guérin / 1774-1833". Work in excellent condition.

On April 7, 1816, the assembly of registered teachers decided to establish composition, painting and sculpture competitions in the months of February and October for the students of the École des beaux-arts, institutionalized that year (1). These historical composition contests were central in academic teaching, for the process of consolidating the standards of a work of art in high genres, especially history painting. They integrated the sequence of contests with the Prix de Rome and the historical landscape.

The one about sketches was a unique challenge, internal for the students admitted to the academic workshops, when they competed for a precise time, executing in the place of the matter that they were lucky to have, without previously knowing it. This system not only involved putting into play technical and creative skills but also intellectual training, since the correct iconography was considered, thus prior knowledge of literary sources and pictorial tradition were also validated. Almost all of the subjects chosen dealt with episodes from Greco-Roman Antiquity, as with the Prix de Rome. The sketches made it possible to gauge the creative vitality, spontaneity, and imagination of the budding artist. Of course, this did not imply an aesthetic search for the unfinished, although the indeterminacy of the secondary figures was presented in the small format, the matter always had to be clearly legible for immediate understanding by the viewer.

Raymond Quinsac Monvoisin had begun his training with Pedro Lacour, a teacher from his hometown of Bordeaux. His death in 1814 prompted him to study in Paris, probably from 1815, since he was active as a student of Pierre-Narcise Guérin (1774-1833) at the beginning of 1816. He was one of the most prestigious masters of his time alongside his own teacher Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829) who was still active, and the favorite disciples of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Anne-Louis Girodet (1767-1824) and Baron Anne-Louis Gros (1771-1835), the latter of the same generation as Baron Guérin. It was precisely Jacques-Louis David who established the sketch contest among his students, a model later proposed by his disciples to carry out in official education. David, at that time, was in exile in Brussels, without accepting the pardon of the Bourbons returned to power.

Monvoisin entered the École des beaux-arts on March 9, 1816, and from its inception he was closely associated with Guérin, both stylistically and in protecting him early in his career. When Guérin took over as director of the Academy in Rome, he arranged for the pension to be granted to Rome, without this step it was very difficult to break through the commissions, despite having come second again in the corresponding contest of 1820, with an oil well done in the style of Guérin, Achilles claims Hector the prize at the Olympic games. The first prize was awarded to Amable-Paul Coutan, a student of Baron Gros. In this way he correctly concluded his career as his student, having obtained the first prize in the 1816 sketch contest, with La muerte de Darío. Both works allow observing the remarkable technical development in a few years to achieve the elaboration of complex pictorial machines of scenes from Antiquity.

Even more so if we observe the hardness of the invoice in his first outstanding work, with an evangelical theme, Jesús curing the possessed, made in 1816, the hinge year, his first shipment to the annual salon, currently in the Museum of Fine Arts in Bordeaux. In these two figures, planted in front of a landscape with ruins without depth, Lacour's style persists and that of the works done together with his older brother in local competitions, or in painting for church chapels.

In 1816 he made one of his first preserved portraits that indicates how he already absorbed the new formal parameters, in particular lighting, which is the hallmark of Guérin's renewal and his influence on the first romantic generation headed by two of his disciples. Delacroix and Gericault. The former shared his own workshop with Monvoisin in Paris during these years. It is the Portrait of Guillaume Bodinier, a painter born in Angers – where the work is preserved – a classmate of Guérin's workshop, very close to him, following the custom of posing as models among the students. It is signed with "Pr." Reference to the Pierre, as it appears in the early records of the French Academy: Pierre Raymond Jacques.

This difference with the usual name has generated confusion with the brother, who must be identified thanks to the addition of "aîné", the "eldest", as it appears in the hall records, since he did not manage to enter the École and dedicated himself to the lithograph. This is noted to indicate that the name placed on the auction house of the sketch is correct in reference to the dating; It is the name with which our Bordeaux painter appears in the archives of his work in the salon, although he used the name of his baptismal certificate Auguste, to which he added the Quinsac, a reference to the family plot in Gascony. In other words, he added religion and nobility to his signature artist, Raymond Auguste Quinsac Monvoisin.

The treatment of shadows can be seen in a work that was Bodinier's possession, and also in his bequest to the Antwerp museum. Cataloged as Portrait of a man at the table, it must be considered in relation to the iconography of beggars that later became a theme put into practice by Monvoisin's American disciples. It is of interest because it corresponds to the same year of the historical sketch that concerns us.

In what corresponds to the composition contests, Monvoisin obtained, as has been mentioned, the first prize with the successful La mort de Darius in the one carried out on March 19, 1816, without a doubt the triangular composition was celebrated in the scene replicated in the background of mountains, plus the effective development of the sequence of the passions. Although forgotten in studies of the artist (David James, the main student of his work, does not record these early achievements in his texts), this initial success grounds the consideration of his talent among his contemporaries. Among the contestants were none other than artists with great subsequent impact such as Gericault, Delacroix, Scheffer and Delaroche. Monvoisin also appeared in the 1817 contest, but we are especially interested in the October 1818 contest, when Monvoisin develops The Death of Cleopatra. The sketch made is kept in the collection of the École des beaux-arts, for which he must have obtained a diploma.

In this sketch he manages to connect the two groups with the figure of the crouching maid, although the light stands out on the recumbent body, the figures of the Romans are static. A reddish tone dominates the composition. It clearly presents the matter, but maintains the subjectivity of the invoice, chromatically fusing the figures with the space, an issue that when constructing a history painting should be objectified, to reinforce the clarity of the representation, according to the naturalistic domain that would allow the illusion to be generated. theater of time and place. In a certain way, the composition sketch, although it can be understood from the formal autonomy –as an invention sketch-, in many cases it is a simple phase of the production process of a history painting. The oil on canvas sketch The Death of Cleopatra, which we deal with in this study, suggests that Monvoisin developed the subject already with a view to a large-format painting, which we do not know if he completed. For that he modified some aspects of his spontaneous creation towards a greater control of the effect of the scene. Thus, Cleopatra's dead body acquires greater drama with her arm dropped, the figure of the maid is now a formal triangle in the center of the scene, which opens to the allegorical reading through the Phrygian cap, (Antony's defeat by Octavio's forces, marks the end of the Republic and opens the way to the Empire). The Roman figures have been modified to generate a dynamic with the extension of the arm and the position of the bodies, closer to Guérin's works such as The Death of Lucrezia. In the same way, a greater elaboration of the furniture appears, such as the attributes of the queen of Egypt. The literary sources on the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty gave Cleopatra's suicide with the venom of a snake great narrative power. For this reason, it occupies a prominent place in the iconography of art on Antiquity, thanks to the seductive intersection of eroticism with the last moments of famous characters, plus the growing fascination of the themes of Egypt since the Napoleonic campaigns.

Undoubtedly, Monvoisin's sketch is an example of Guérin's school: he has incorporated from the drawings of Roman soldiers to the compositional structure of the master's pictorial sketches. This condition is further emphasized if we compare the sketch with a later one by Bodinier's friend, Mort de Tullus roi d'Albe of 1822.

Guérin's name appears on the back in later writing, it was customary to register composition works with the name of some teacher of the academy. In this regard, it is interesting that the sketch preserved in the archive of works by students of the École is found (2) signed by Regnault. Is it likely that Monvoisin studied that year with Regnault?

Diderot's phrase is well known, in his commentary to the salon of 1767: “Why does a beautiful sketch please us more than a beautiful painting? It is because there is more life and less form in the sketch.”

Por Roberto Amigo


1. Frederic Chappey. Esquisse école des Beaux-Arts la création des concours de composition in 1816. Revue de l'Art, 1994, n°104. pp. 9-14. Agnès Goudail, Catherine Giraudon, Jean-Michel Leniaud Procès-verbaux de l'Académie des Beaux-arts: 1816-1820. Paris: Librairie Droz, 2001, p. 300

Unfortunately it has not been possible to consult, Philippe Grunchec. Les concours d'esquisses peintes, 1816–1863. Paris: Ecole Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux-Arts, 1996, 2 vol.

2. For example, Ary Scheffer's sketch with Le serment des sept chefs devant Thèbes, contest of 1817, Girodet-Trioson's signature is found



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