Too original to be pigeonholed

Humphrey Wine on “François-André Vincent (1746-1816). Un artiste entre Fragonard et David” at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours, until 19 January 2014, then at the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, 8 February -11 May 2014

François-André Vincent, William Tell and Gessler, 1795. Courtesy of the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse

An artist reborn before his due date! So often monographic exhibitions tie in with a centenary of an artist’s birth or death that one might have expected that devoted to François-André Vincent (1746-1816) three years hence. Fortunately the organisers have dispensed with this convention. Instead the catalyst has been a more significant event, namely the publication by Arthena of Jean-Pierre Cuzin’s catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work – hence an exhibition hand-list, but no exhibition catalogue as such.

Vincent was 14 years the junior of Fragonard, two years the senior of Jacques-Louis David, but the show’s title, no more than the exhibition itself, is less about dates than about his reputation. Squeezed between the éclat of Fragonard and the ambition of David, Vincent was too moderate a character to define some art-historical movement or embody an “ism”, but too much an original simply to be pigeonholed into one.

Born in Paris, the son of a Genevan miniaturist, in 1764 he rejected the possibility of a banking career to join the studio of the history painter, Joseph-Marie Vien. After winning the Grand Prix four years later with Germanicus Pacifying a Mutiny in the Camp, he spent the years 1771-5 in Rome. As for many artists of the period this proved a turning point. He abandoned the overcharged colour and composition of the Germanicus for a more restrained approach. On his return to Paris he enjoyed great critical success with a novel subject from French history, President Molé facing the Mob during the Fronde, 1779, which had been commissioned by the King. He became an Academician in 1782, the Keeper of the King’s drawings in 1790 and survived both the Revolution and the disdain of David. After the Terror he resurfaced with a patriotic subject, William Tell and Gessler, 1795, which stylistically looks forward to Delacroix; a magnificent and original lesson in virtue, The Agriculture Lesson, 1797-98; and a moving, Romantic Melancholy, 1800-01.

Except for the William Tell, represented by a sketch and a study in oil, all these works are in the exhibition.

Lacking dedicated exhibition space, six rooms of Tours’s permanent collection have been given over to a selection of Vincent’s paintings and two to drawings.The hang is broadly chronological, but by way of introduction the first room includes a portrait, 1795, of the artist by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, successively Vincent’s pupil, mistress and, from 1800 until her death three years later, wife. Herself a portraitist, she could not have had a better teacher. Portraiture was a constant in Vincent’s career and the examples spread through the exhibition are among its highpoints. His Self-portrait in Spanish Costume, around 1767-68, with its fluid brushwork and long considered to be by Fragonard, is the work of a talented young artist, but within a matter of years he had progressed to the splendidly informal and original Portrait of Bergeret de Grancourt, 1774, a gently ironic take on Grand Tour portraiture. Vincent never lost his touch for portraiture as evidenced by the beautiful Portrait of a Woman with her Dog, 1793, and the directly but sympathetically observed Madamoiselle Victoire Perrier, 1813. Here he emerges here as one of the finest portraitists of a time and place not short of skill in this area.

In the field of history painting some of Vincent’s exempla virtutis anticipated those of David, for example his Belisarius of 1776, his The Sabines of 1781, from which David borrowed a number of figures for the première pensée of his own Belisarius of 1794. Especially useful is the display of drawings and oil studies related to some of the paintings in the show. The Abduction of Orythia, 1782, is complemented by an oil sketch and three drawings. For conservation reasons the drawings were shown separately, but Tours chose to hang its own related oil sketch with them rather than the painting., while The Agriculture Lesson benefits from a related drawing and three oil studies. Seeing that painting hung with the studies was droolworthy, an exhibition within an exhibition which can be enjoyed for the superb quality of the works as well as for what they say about Vincent’s working methods. Other drawings shown include a number of caricatures of Vincent’s fellow artists and acquaintances, as well as more conventional studies using a variety of techniques - one that is especially memorable in this splendid exhibition is a red chalk drawing of astonishing sensitivity of a little girl sitting on her heels.

The Montpellier leg of the show will exhibit a slightly different selection of paintings and, for conservation reasons, a substantially different selection of drawings. Further evidencing the importance of drawings to Vincent will be an exhibition devoted to them being shown at the Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris, in March 2014. Presumably these will differ from the drawings exhibited in Tours and Montpellier, and it is to be hoped that they will include Vincent’s beautifully refined drawing of two female heads in black, red and white chalks made after his own Zeuxis Choosing his Models of 1789, recently bought by the Getty Museum. Gratifyingly the title of the Paris exhibition will make no reference to Fragonard or to David – "Vincent Reborn" and, as he richly deserves, independently baptised.

Published Thu, 12 Dec 2013 12:05:00 GMT

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