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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pierre Mignard

Pierre Mignard Self-portrait, ca. 1635
In American politics we call them Republicans and Democrats. On a broader, more international political spectrum, they're called conservatives and liberals. In art they've gone by names such as Academicians and Avant-garde or, before that, the Poussinistes and the Rubenistes, and in the 20th century, the Realists and the Expressionists. Regardless of the game, or the playing field, or the season, it seems there have always been two sides to every issue. Dating back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle, we find, on the one hand, those defending age old traditions, values, procedures, and styles. And on the opposite side, those in search of the new and unique, the daring, the exciting, and the liberating. Like a ticking clock, the pendulum of time and temperament swings between the two as tastes expand and contract, the old dies off and the new grows old. Politics, art, history, mankind in general, breathes in and out, expanding and contracting, in effect a massive human social organism in which we are all single cells, and which, barring catastrophe, lives on forever.

Cardinal Richelieu in Three Views, ca. 1640,
Philippe de Champaigne
In 17th century France, a century before they began calling themselves the Poussinistes and the Rubenistes, there had long been a conservative and a liberal element in French Art. The conservatives, with the help of Cardinal Richelieu (left), founded the French Academy in 1635. To oversimplify a complex artistic and political milieu, this organization, though made up mostly of painters, considered drawing to be the highest art. In the broadest sense, their paintings were simply colored drawings. Opposing them were a much more loosely organized group consisting of domestic and imported artists who had studied in Italy. There, the expressive use of color was much more dominant, perhaps as a result of the Italian love of fresco painting (in which drawn lines were merely "suggestions" as to where an artist might apply paint). Besides the strong use of colour, their art was marked by a striking sense of drama, brilliant light, grand scale, daring composition, and dynamic movement. Michelangelo was, to them, like a god. These we would call the liberals. Pierre Mignard was a liberal.

Altarpiece, Church of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane,
Rome,  ca. 1637, Pierre Mignard 
Pierre Mignard was born in Troyes, in 1612. His older brother, Nicholas, also became a painter in Avignon. In his formative years as an artist, Pierre studied in Paris under both Simon Vouet and Jean Boucher (not to be confused with 18th century Rococo artist Fran├žois Boucher). In the studio of Vouet he met fellow student Charles le Brun. In 1635, the same year the French Academy was founded, Mignard grabbed an opportunity to study in Rome. Le Brun, on the other hand, remained in Paris, joined the Academy, and later became its president. Meanwhile Mignard studied and painted in Rome or traveled about Italy for more than twenty years, familiarizing himself with all the Italian "schools," working in fresco, painting portraits, and making quite a name for himself in both pursuits. He found himself painting three popes. But it was his frescoes in the church of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (above, right) that brought him to the attention of Louis XIV back in France.

The Heavenly Glory, 1663, Pierre Mignard

One of Mignard's more vainglorious renditions
of the exceedingly vainglorious Louis XIV, 1672
Summoned back to Paris by his king in 1657, Mignard became the court painter. He was to paint his close friend the king as many as ten times over the remaining years of their lives. But he refused to join the Academy and instead fell in with the social group of Racine, Boileau, la Fontaine, and the poet Moliere--all critics of the Academy and its president, (and now Mignard's rival) Charles le Brun. In 1663, Mignard's name and reputation were forever "plastered" into French art when he was awarded the commission to decorate the dome of the Val-de-Grace (above). It was then, and now, the largest fresco in the world. Composed of the Blessed Trinity encircled by a throng of over 200 colossal figures representing apostles, evangelists, confessors, founders of various religious orders, holy kings, and an assortment of other saints and church notables peering down from Paradise, this apotheosis formula, while somewhat trite by Italian standards, was nonetheless new and quite impressive in Paris. Mignard completed the work in just eight months. And, while modern day critics might crack, "Yes, and it looks like it too," the court, the clergy, the critics, even the French Academy of his day, had nothing but praise for Mignard's efforts.

Old friends, bitter rivals, Charles le Brun and
Pierre Mignard (right) in an etching by le Brun.
The polarizing dichotomy of drawing versus painting nonetheless continued in Paris despite Mignard's immense popularity. His work was firmly grounded in the Italian Renaissance style as filtered through Mannerist interpretation and bridged the gap between the Mannerist and the Baroque eras, bringing an influential mix of the two to French art. And in so doing, it challenged the dry, academic traditions of the home-grown variety. In 1690, Charles le Brun died. And upon his death, in what could only be called a startling apotheosis of his own, Mignard was, in one day, welcomed into the Academy as an associate member, then solemnly elected a full member, rector, director, and finally, chancellor (replacing le Brun) of the same conservative, authoritarian institution he had so long opposed. It was a position he was to hold for just five years, during which time the two opposing philosophies of art became an internal academic conflict that was to go on for another two centuries. In 1695, while working on a painting in which he himself appears, St. Luke Painting the Blessed Virgin, Mignard died, literally with a brush in his hand. He was 84.
St. Luke Painting the Blessed Virgin, 1695, Pierre Mignard, seen in the background
holding brushes, his final work. (Notice the difference in size of the saint's feet.)

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