Louis Janmot, l’Inconnu d’Orsay

parisdiaArt1 Comment

“Spring”, cir 1850, Lyon Musée des Beaux Arts, gift of the artist’s heirs. The boy dressed in pink is around four years old. He meets his female counterpart, his soulmate, who will accompany him on his adventures.

You have never heard of 19 th century painter Louis Janmot, 1814-1892, and unless you come from Lyon, you are not the only one. But Christophe Leribault, director of Musée d’Orsay, has always admired him, and he waited many years to be able to put on an exhibition about this “Painter of the Soul”, whose romantic spiritualism echoes William Blake’s, Francisco de Goya’s and the Pre Raphaelites and Symbolists such as Odilon Redon. The show is superbly set with, for the first time since 1950, the display of the full cycle of thirty four compositions in oil and in charcoal. It was the work of his life, between 1835 and 1881 and Leribault’s impish charm worked well on the visitors at the opening. He curated the exhibition with Servane Dargnies-de Vitry, who presented the Boldini show at Petit Palais and Stéphane Paccoud, head curator at Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon.

Self-portrait, 1832, Lyon Musée des Beaux Arts, bought 2010. The artist is 18 at the time

When I walked into the main room with the striking oil paintings, I had an irresistible feeling of seeing 19th century versions of Pierre et Gilles’s photographies. Except that there is nothing gay about the artist who had eight children with Léonie de Saint Paulet, but there is a distinct ambiguity about the boy dressed in a red robe and the girl in white. The special light and fairy tale quality of the canvases are totally joyful. “Rays of Sunlight” reminds us of Botticelli’s “Three Graces”, while “Nightmare” is  terrifying with its Italian classical decor.

“Nightmare”, 1849-1850, Lyon Musée des Beaux Arts

The works are accompanied by a 2 814 verses long poem of “the Soul”, written by Janmot himself and published in two parts in 1854 and in 1881. Writings and paintings constitute one indissociable work. The first cycle of eighteen oil paintings tells the story of a soul’s first years in Heaven and on Earth, the soul being depicted in the form of a young boy accompanied by a young girl. We follow the vicissitudes of their journey with the young woman’s untimely death. Théophile Gautier and Baudelaire were drawn to theses canvases which were exhibited at the 1855 Universal Exhibition on Delacroix’s recommendation. But it did not get the positive reception it deserved.

Christophe Leribault, Servane Dargnies-de Vitry and Stéphane Paccoud in the main room of paintings

The painter  was inspired by Alphonse de Lamartine and Alexandre Soumet for his epic poem and also by Milton, Dante and the Niebelungen’s medieval legends. Both children aspire to heaven, harmony and purity. From their birth to their education, young love and dreamy life, they move in a colorful world with blue and pink skies. In the second cycle which is fascinating, drawings are made with fusain (charcoal) on blue, beige and pink paper. The size is the same as the paintings’ but the atmosphere is more somber and the young man who has lost his love, tries all pleasures of life and temptations but only finds suffering. In the end, he is welcome by his lover in heaven in “Sursum corda”.

The Orgy, 1861, charcoal on beige paper, Lyon, Musée des Beaux Arts

In the side cabinets, there are more paintings by Burne Jones, Prud’hon, William Blake, Maurice Dnis as well as marble sculptures which put Janmot in the historical context. I loved many of the paintings starting with the “Passage of the Souls” from 1838-1845, where the guardian angel is accompanied by several angels while Prometheus is chained to a rock on earth and watches his liver be devoured by a vulture. The religious side of the paintings is close to a legendary tale and the portrait of Father Lacordaire with a mountain as a decor is completely poetic as is the “Grain of Wheat”, a painting which shows Father Noirot (his philosophy professor at Collège Royale de Lyon) instruct the two children illuminated by the sunshine.

Father Lacordaire , 1846, Paris, Bibliothèque du Saulchoir

What I liked most in this show is obviously the discovery of a new painter with very romantic decors and colors as well as a dark vision of society in charcoal. Do not miss it.

Until January 7 at Musée d’Orsay. And from October 3, you will have a new blockbuster show with “Van Gogh in Auvers sur Oise”.

Share this Post


One Comment on “Louis Janmot, l’Inconnu d’Orsay”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *