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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Joseph-Marie Vien

St. Denis Preaching in Gaul,  1767, Saint-Roch, Paris, Joseph-Marie Vien
As an artist gets older (ain't we all) there's a tendency to let the mind wander as to what future generations will think about our creative output over the course of a lifetime. That's assuming there is a significant body of work for them to consider--something more than that of a meager hobbyist. Though some pretty famous artist have left as few as a dozen or so pieces for posterity, for the most part that magic number ranges from a hundred or so upwards to several thousand in rare case. I've never taken the time to actually count the number of paintings I've done in my lifetime but I'm guessing the figure would be in the neighborhood of a couple hundred or more. I probably have at least half that many socked away in storage at the moment. Add to that several hundred pencil portraits over a period of twenty years and I think it would be safe to say my work, coupled with my writings, should be enough to keep some future art critic/historian with way too much time on his or her hands, busy for a fair amount of time in trying to make some kind of intelligent statement regarding my oeuvre. If you're wondering why all this matters, it's usually the first step in that artist's work becoming posthumously "collectible." However, just because some expert studies an artist in some depth doesn't mean that the overall verdict will necessarily be positive. It can also be quite negative or perhaps positive to some degree with certain reservations. As an example, the work of the French painter, Joseph-Marie Vien, falls into this latter realm.
Vien seems to have been a rather brash young artist, headstrong, talented, and
not disposed to display any great degree of modesty as to his abilities.
Daedalus and Icarus, ca. 1746,
Joseph Marie Vien
Vien (or Wien if you want to anglicize it) was born in Montpellier (southern France) in 1716. Something of a child prodigy, the young boy began his art studies in the studio of the French Rococo painter, Charles-Joseph Natoire, pos-sibly as young as twelve (if the date on his self-portrait, above, is to be believed). In any case, shortly before turning thirty, Vien won the Prix de Rome in 1745, which allowed him an all-expenses-paid, year-long trip to Rome to further his studies at that branch of the French Academy. Though Vien succeeded in soaking up much of the rich cultural heritage of Classical art Rome had to offer, he possessed a painting manner so distinctly his own that in submitting his painting, Daedalus and Icarus (right), the following year, for admission to the Academy, the reaction among the academicians was quite adverse. It was only through the indignant insistence of Francois Boucher that he was accepted.

The Centurion Kneeling at the Feet of Christ, 1752, Joseph Marie Vien
Two Women Bathing, 1762,
Joseph-Marie Vien
From all accounts, Vien seems to have been relatively successful, specializing in the academic tradition of Greek mythology with lots of sanitized (mostly female) nudity, with the occasional religious work thrown in to maintain the appearance of some degree of moral rectitude in his career. Vien's The Centurion Kneeling at the Feet of Christ (above), from 1752, is typical of the Classical, highly literal treatment of religious subjects during this period. An even better example is Vien's much larger St. Denis Preaching in Gaul (top), from 1767 in which he contrasts a "multitude of the heavenly hosts" with the unsaved earthly rabble toward the bottom of the painting. Vien's Two Women Bathing (left) from 1762, is far more typical of the thinly-disguised eroticism that had become the hallmark of Academic painting and thus made up the bulk of Vien's work. This type of work contrasted sharply with the Romantic erot-icism of the Rococo era of about the same time.

Vien was really not much of a portrait artist, but his reputation and standing with the French Academy were such that he was sought out by those "on the way up" to polish their images.
By 1776, Joseph-Marie Vien's reputation was such that, at the age of sixty, he was once more off to Rome, this time as director of the French Academy there. Though now a solidly respected and academician, Vien's attitude and demeanor hadn't changed much. He raised eyebrows when he refused to let the talented Jacques-Louis David (of whom he'd once painted a childhood portrait, above) accompany him, claiming that he (Vien) was too old to teach such a young student (David was twenty-eight at the time). Vien remained in Rome for the next five years, returning in the early 1780s to resume his lackluster painting career and to train a new generation of Classical artists including his wife, Marie-Thérèse Reboul. Their son, Marie-Joseph Vien, born in 1761, also became a distinguished artist.

Coronation of Louis XV, 1763 Joseph-Marie Vien. This is the type of painting
which can get an artist in trouble in the event of a revolution.

With the coming of the French Revolution, the 1790s were difficult for Vien, as was the case with many Academic artists during this time. If they enjoyed royal patronage at, (and a great many did, including Vien) they were immediately suspect as hated royalists, prone to "losing their heads" if they weren't careful. Vien managed to keep his, but his fortunes were wrecked by the political turmoil which ensued. However, undaunted, Vien went back to painting and, at the age of eighty (1796), managed to carry off the top prize in an open government competition. Napoleon Bonaparte acknowledged his merit by making him a senator. Such was the high regard he garnered with the new régime that, when Vien died in 1809 at the age of ninety-three, he became the only artist to ever be interred in a crypt at the Paris Pantheon.

Sweet Melancholy, 1756, Joseph-Marie Vien
All of this sounds great on paper. Joseph-Marie Vien had what might be considered an impeccable Academic resume. However, the critical word there is "academic." With the coming of the French Revolution, and in the decades following, Academicism gradually acquired a "bad name." And, Vien, being one of the most academic of the academicians, came to share that burden. Worse still, it was not altogether unjustified. The vast majority of Vien's work is almost sickeningly sweet, as seen in his painting titled (appropriately enough) Sweet Melancholy (above) dating from 1756. In perusing most of Vien's other works, they have a tendency to go downhill from there. His Portrait of the Architect Michel Barthelemy Hazon (below) has such a pompous, silly look as to be laughable, with its poorly proportioned horse, its oversized, overdressed rider, and the pretentious attention to the details of the architect's robes and ungainly turban. It's little wonder art historians today give Vien very little notice. I'd say they're just being kind.

Portrait of the Architect Michel Barthelemy Hazon,
Joseph-Marie Vien--the type of work that make
art historians smile...then burst out laughing.

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