Merry Joseph Blondel (Paris 1781-1853)

Sappho recalled to life by the charm of music


Oil on canvas 120 x 160 cm Inscribed in ink at the back of the canvas acheté par le Baron Schickler en 1848 Signed and dated at the lower right 1828

Provenance: - Baron Schickler, 1848 - Pierre Loti - Then by descent Merry Joseph Blondel studied in Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s atelier in 1802 before winning the Prix de Rome in 1803 with Aeneas and Anchises (Paris, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts). He did not go to Rome until 1809 and stayed in Italy for three years. There he struck up a friendship with Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres that would last for the rest of the artists’ lives . After gaining a gold medal in the Salon of 1817 for the Death of Louis XII (Toulouse, Musées des Augustins), Blondel embarked on a wide-ranging and successful career as official painter during which he received prestigious commissions for palaces, museums and churches. His monumental allegorical compositions in the tradition of David include the decoration of the Salon and of the Galerie de Diane at Fontainebleau (1822–28) and he received major commissions for several ceilings in the Louvre, of which the earliest and most remarkable is in the vestibule to the Galerie d’Apollon (The Sun or the Fall of Icarus, 1819; in situ). Blondel received considerable recognition in his lifetime: gold medal in 1817, the Légion d'Honneur, a professorship at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, and a seat at the Institut de France. As shown in the present painting, Blondel’s classicizing style demonstrates a degree of originality in the dramatic, almost theatrical effects of both light and gestures. This is also apparent in pictures such as Elisabeth of Hungary placing her crown at the feet of the image of Jesus Christ (1824, Eglise St Elisabeth, Paris). The elegant and highly finished of Sappho recalled to life by the charm of music shows the poetess stirring from the deep melancholy that befell her after she was abandoned by her lover Phaon. Interest in the Greek poetess Sappho was high in the early 19th century. A popular tragic opera, named for the heroine, was frequently performed. The well-known playwright Jean-Francois Ducis (1733–1817), referred to Sappho’s ill-fated love in an anthology of poems. In the visual arts, her story inspired paintings by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros and David, as well as Louis Ducis who also depicted Sappho recalled to life by the charm of music (ca. 1811, The Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA). The present painting’s elegant chromatic range and subtle chiaroscuro can be compared with Hecuba and Polyxena (after 1814, Los Angeles County Museum). Blondel was also a gifted portrait painter. The Portrait of his Daughter at the Age of Five (c. 1839, Musée Martin, Gray) shows the influence of the English school and among the many portraits he executed for the Musée Historique in Versailles, the portrait of Percier (1839) has a genuine psychological acuity. The painting has a distinguished provenance. An inscription at the back of the canvas indicates mentions the Baron Schickler. The Schicklers were a wealthy banking family of German origin who moved in the highest Parisian social circles. Jean-Georges Schickler (1793-1843) and his wife Marguerite-Angélica-Davida acquired the famous hôtel Crozat on the Place Vendôme in 1828. As part of their redecorating programme, the Schicklers filled their home with art by artists such as Wouwermans, David, Gérard, Isabey and Michallon, and with numerous, mostly equestrian paintings by Carle and Horace Vernet, Géricault, and Eugène Delacroix. Their son Arthur de Schickler (1828-1919) also had a passion for horse racing. The painting later belonged to Pierre Loti (1850-1923), the French writer known for his exotic novels including Madame Chrysanthème (1887). Loti was an inveterate collector and his remarkable house in Rochefort is preserved as a museum.