Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 8, 2012
Marianne Cojannot-Le Blanc, ed. Philippe de Champaigne ou la figure du peintre janséniste: Lecture critique des rapports entre Port-Royal et les arts Paris: Nolin, 2011. 218 pp.; 32 b/w ills. Paper €62.00 (9782910487416)
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This book is a collection of nine essays and a short preface analyzing some aspects of the connections between Philippe de Champaigne, the convent of Port-Royal, and Jansenism. The editor, Marianne Cojannot-Le Blanc, contributed two essays; the last one (“La Foi et les œuvres. Postface sur l’œuvre peint de Philippe de Champaigne et ses possibles liens avec la spiritualité de Port-Royal”) functions as a postscript. It provides a useful context for the collection by summarizing the literature and explaining the approaches scholars have used (in the past and here) while proposing Cojannot-Le Blanc’s own interpretation, to which I will return at the end of this review. The two most important questions—“Was Champaigne a Jansenist painter?” and “What is a Jansenist painter?”—are tackled in this collection by scholars from various fields using several methodologies. It should be noted here that the authors of this collection do not always give the same meaning to the terms “Jansenism” and “Port-Royal.” In her last essay, Cojannot-Le Blanc provides a clear explanation of both (see note 4, page 172).

In her short preface, “Le jansénisme et les arts,” Monique Cottret briefly explains the complexity of this religious movement, especially in regards to the arts. For her, Champaigne cannot be a Jansenist painter simply because Jansenism neither existed as a coherent whole nor broke away from Catholicism. However, she believes that his oeuvre should be seen as a visual manifestation of the doctrine of Port-Royal. In her concluding paragraph, Cottret introduces the authors of the book by praising their diversity and their “retour à l’érudition,” meaning a welcome return to erudition following Louis Marin’s semiotic approach to Champaigne (see Louis Marin’s Philippe de Champaigne ou la présence cachée, Paris: Hazan, 1995).

In his well-written and informative essay, “Philippe de Champaigne et Port-Royal: les leçons d’une correspondance,” Jean Lesaulnier makes three important points. First, through his analysis of letters, he strengthens the connections between Champaigne and better-known members of Port-Royal, affiliations that are often mentioned but not always fully documented. Second, he shows that Champaigne took part in the intellectual conversations at the Château de Vaumurier that the Duc de Luynes built on the land he had purchased from the monastery of Port-Royal (1651). Among the other guests were Antoine Arnauld, Pierre Nicole, Blaise Pascal, and the young Jean Racine. Lesaulnier makes a strong case in support of Champaigne’s intellectual involvement with Port-Royal. Third, Lesaulnier draws attention to a letter (note 26, page 24) that dates Champaigne’s Good Shepherd (Musée des Beaux-arts, Tours) to Easter 1664, when its patron received it.

Étienne Jollet’s “Le regard dans l’œuvre de Philippe de Champaigne: la présence et le jugement” proposes that the gaze of figures in Champaigne’s paintings is varied, subtle, and enigmatic as it so often implies the shared knowledge of God’s hidden gaze. He divides Champaigne’s work into several iconographical categories, though probably because of the richness of the topic, none of these categories appear fully developed, leaving the reader wanting more. Jollet mentions at least forty artworks by Champaigne, describing some in great detail (providing beautifully written formal analyses). Unfortunately, only three are illustrated here. On the whole, the illustrations in this book are of poor quality, and it is useful to have at hand for consultation Lorenzo Pericolo’s Philippe de Champaigne: “Philippe homme sage et vertueux.” Essai sur l’art et l’œuvre de Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674) (Tournai: La Renaissance du Livre, 2002).

In “‘Je crois plus à votre cœur qu’à votre éloquence.’ La création chez les écrivains proches de Port-Royal et sa réception à l’intérieur du monastère,” Anne-Claire Volongo discusses the importance of literary writing for both the nuns of Port-Royal, known for their voluminous correspondence, and the solitaires (laymen who retired from the world to live in semi-religious community on the grounds of Port-Royal), who produced numerous translations and commentaries on religious texts. She explains how the nuns rationalized creative writing, a potentially prideful or vain sin. Thus, picking up a quill could be justified when it responded to the request or solicitation from the community. In this context, translations played a special role. She also shows the importance of rhetoric at Port-Royal: texts must be clear, respect the word of God, avoid flourishes of language, and above all find guidance through God’s love.

In “Les relations problématiques entre jansénisme et peinture au XVIIe siècle. Le cas du portrait,” Sandrine Lely addresses much more than the title implies. In the first part of the essay, she examines the challenges of analyzing the relationship between Jansenism and painting. She justly reminds readers that Champaigne was not the only painter working for Port-Royal, despite being the focus of scholarship since the nineteenth century. While scholars have recently paid more attention to both his nephew, Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, and his student, Nicolas de Plattemontagne (see the exhibition catalogue: À l’École de Philippe de Champaigne, Dominique Brême, ed., Musée d’Evreux, Evreux, 2007), scholars still know next to nothing about Madeleine de Boullongne, Élizabeth-Sophie Chéron, and Louise-Madeleine Horthemels, all of whom are recorded as having worked for the convent. The documents also prove elusive. Writing about art was not a concern for the Jansenists of Port-Royal, and their thoughts—expressed mostly in correspondence—are fragmentary (for a list of these documents, see notes 9 and 10, page 72). Further, Lely points out that the conclusions of the most important scholars (André Fontaine, Bernard Dorival, and Louis Marin), who used these documents to tackle the issue of Jansenist aesthetics in Champaigne’s work, are at times faulty (e.g., Marin’s analysis of Champaigne’s various representations of the Veil of Veronica). In the second part of the essay, she analyzes documents dealing with portraiture, a genre of particular interest to both the Jansenists of Port-Royal and Tridentine thinkers such as Cardinal Paleotti, because of the sin of vanity. The most extreme of all writers is Pierre Nicole who believed that any type of portrait is “a mask and a lie” (note 25, page 75). In contrast, Isaac Le Maistre de Sacy writes of his joy with the posthumous portrait of his brother by Champaigne as it “resurrects” the image of the beloved sitter (note 34, page 77). For Lely, the relationship between Champaigne and Port-Royal is a “rencontre”—a meeting of kindred spirits. She concludes with a lovely quote by Sacy to encapsulate her thoughts: “Champaigne joined perfectly the excellence of his art with his affection for the abbesses and solitaires of Port-Royal” (note 50, page 80).

In her “Les relations de voyage en Italie de l’abbé de Pontchâteau et de Charles Le Maistre, deux sources nouvelles pour la question d’un regard port-royaliste sur les arts,” Cojannot-Le Blanc examines two travel journals written by men close to Port-Royal in the hope of shedding more light on a Port-Royal’s attitude toward the arts. Her approach is different as she brings in texts new to the subject and compares them to Jansenist and other contemporary journals (see note 6, page 89). The Abbé de Pontchâteau, an educated nobleman destined for the Church, undertook a trip to Italy in 1658–59. Born into a family of merchants, Charles Le Maistre (1619–1688) was a doctor of theology who travelled to Italy in 1664–65. The two men knew each other since at least 1657 and were affiliated with Port-Royal. Pontchâteau’s journal appears traditional, listing the art he saw and adding the usual sentence of praise. Le Maistre’s is different due to both his interest in religious practices and his more candid approach to art. While he does not write much about art, his discussion of Bernini’s Chair of St. Peter is revealing and original. He praised the monument for its beauty, but sees it as a bad ornament because it prevents viewers from inspecting the relic. Cojannot-Le Blanc concludes that while a few Jansenist characteristics can be detected, especially in Le Maistre’s writing, these journals do not stand out from the travel genre.

Anne le Pas de Sécheval’s “Les sources de l’invention picturale: le discours janséniste en son siècle” attempts to expose a Jansenist concept of pictorial creation. Unfortunately, her analysis of the primary sources—the letters that Martin de Barcos wrote to Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne from 1674 to 1678, as well as selected conferences that Philippe and his nephew, Jean-Baptiste, gave at the Royal Academy—remains underdeveloped. She states that both Barcos and the Champaignes believed that artists should read the Bible in order to be “faithful historians.” Barcos’s position is typical of the Solitaires and not surprising. Her assertion that the Champaignes proposed a new Jansenist approach, focusing on the text and rejecting the use of an established iconography, is more difficult to accept. I am more inclined to agree with Cojannot-Le Blanc’s thoughts on this topic expressed in her postscript. In the second part of the article, le Pas de Sécheval uses late seventeenth-century examples to differentiate a Jansenist “historically correct representation” of a religious scene (based directly on the text) and the more traditional “spiritual representation” (based on a religious commentary), which may only show that such differences became important after Philippe de Champaigne’s death.

In “Les portraits de jansénistes de Philippe de Champaigne; Au miroir du XVIIIe siècle: influence et réception,” Christine Gouzi examines the influence of Champaigne’s portraits of the members of Port-Royal (both religious and secular) on the large and often neglected corpus of eighteenth-century portraits of French Jansenists. Certain similarities are noteworthy. The first is the virtual non-existence of female portraits, with the exception of religious historical portraits, such as the Ex-voto (1662). As the Jansenist Pierre Nicole explained, propriety forbade the representation of women. Second, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century artists often worked after a mortuary mask. Gouzi notes that while this old practice was well-established among religious orders, the Jesuits abandoned it around 1600, while Jansenists continued to use it until the end of the eighteenth century. Finally, she shows that the composition Champaigne favored for these portraits—bust-length portraits showing the sitter slightly turned and looking into the distance, with a reduced palette and neutral background—became established formula in the eighteenth century.

Pierre Wachenheim’s “Du Nécrologe au Muséum: un siècle de réceptions de Philippe de Champaigne, à travers textes et gravures” traces the historiography of Champaigne in various texts, ranging from Jansenist writings to descriptions of Paris, from the eighteenth century to today. The article is useful in reminding the reader how the image of Champaigne as a Jansenist painter came into being in the eighteenth century and evolved over time through the reproduction of selected works through prints. These range from Madeleine Horthemels’s series of eighteen prints illustrating the daily life of Port-Royal (showing how Champaigne’s paintings were hung in the monastery before its destruction in 1710), to the creation of large collections of engraved portraits of Jansenist personalities, some done many years after Champaigne’s original. In 1789, with the nationalization of the patrimony of the clergy, the focus switched to his religious work. Of the seven paintings by Champaigne to enter the Musée du Louvre, five are associated with Port-Royal, and all were reproduced in prints. It is at this time that his famous Ex-voto made its first public appearance, and it has remained his most reproduced picture. Wachenheim’s conclusion, that the reproduction of certain key works by Champaigne associated with Port-Royal has shaped an understanding of this painter, will sound even more acute to readers who went to French high schools and remember seeing the Ex-voto reproduced in history textbooks.

Cojannot-Le Blanc’s postscript, “La Foi et les œuvres; Postface sur l’œuvre peint de Philippe de Champaigne et ses possibles liens avec la spiritualité de Port-Royal,” is by far the most substantial and the longest essay in the book. She dismisses several notions about Champaigne and Jansenism and proposes to redirect the course of studies. For her, a Jansenist conception of painting dependent on the correspondence between Barcos and Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne is insufficient to brand Philippe’s oeuvre Jansenist, simply because these letters are posthumous documents. On the other hand, she agrees that certain notions important to Jansenists, such as respecting “la vérité de l’histoire,” also mattered to Champaigne, but only within reason. Thus, Champaigne is severe with Nicolas Poussin’s Eliezer and Rebecca at the Well because in the representation of an obscure story the artist must remain true to the details of the narrative; yet, he has no complaint with Raphael’s Virgin and Child with St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist, a historical fiction not in the Bible, but a well-established artistic convention. Cojannot-Le Blanc cautions against assessing an artist’s piety through examination of his artistic production alone. If Champaigne were a fervent Jansenist, she writes, he likely would have renounced his profession. Her concluding remarks go back to one of the most fundamental aspects of art history—style—which in the case of Champaigne has been neglected because so much attention has been given to his religious convictions and also because his stylistic evolution does not fit within our expectations. It is refreshing to see it addressed here. For Cojannot-Le Blanc, Champaigne’s style is about “justesse” (balance), which is best understood as the visual manifestation of his 1672 conference at the Academy in which he explained that a painter must have a recognizable personal style that is simultaneously faithful and varied in the care taken to represent the natural world. I think that her idea of the “justesse” of Champaigne’s style also provides a new approach in appreciating his oeuvre in relation to Jansenism.

Anne Bertrand-Dewsnap
Teaching Associate for Core Art History, Department of Art and Art History, Marist College

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