Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 91 x 74 cm
[Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, Prince of Benevento, by 1806 (?)] ; sometime before 23 January 1813 ( possibly even several years earlier), Count Giovanni Battista de Sommariva (1760 – 1826); by descent to his youngest son Luigi (deceased 1839); Sale of the collection of the Count de Sommariva held at their Parisian hôtel particulier on 18-23rd February 1839; Jules Delessert (1773-1847); bequeathed to his brother François Delessert (1780-1868); Sale of the collection of François Delessert held at his hôtel particulier in Paris on 15-18th March 1869, lot 150, for the amount of 4,700 francs; by descent, Private collection
Exposition of paintings at the galeries des Beaux-Arts, boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle, 22 to benefit la Caisse de Secours et Pensions de la Société des Artistes, Paris, Bazar de Bonne-Nouvelle, 1846, no 19
Gérard’s career as the most successful portraitist of the Empire is well documented, but as a pupil of David, his first ambition was to be a history painter. His background had been conservative; he was born in Rome where his father was head of the household of the French Ambassador, the Cardinal de Bernis. When the Gérard family returned to France in 1780 François’ father entered the employment of the Bailli de Breteuil, and the young artist first joined the studio of the sculptor Pajou, then that of Boucher’s pupil Brenet before becoming a student of David in 1786. Gérard was beaten by Girodet for the prix de Rome of 1789, leading to some resentment on the part of the latter with rumors of underhand behavior by Girodet. Gérard entered again the following year but was forced to withdraw by the sudden death of his father, when he had to accompany his distraught mother and brothers on their return to Rome. He remained there for nearly two years, then in 1792 returned to Paris to once again advance his artistic career. Although he may not have embraced the revolution with the fervor of his master David, he nonetheless produced a powerful revolutionary image with his drawing, intended as a preliminary sketch for a painting entitled The 10th August 1792 (when the Assembly deprived the King of his powers). This served to ingratiate himself with the far more radical David and won him first prize in the Concours of year II, 1794, and an award of 20,000 livres.
Gérard’s fellow pupil Girodet, who was living in Rome, suspected that Gérard’s revolutionary sympathies were merely skin deep and, in a letter of 1793, mocked their master’s fanaticism. Indeed, Girodet’s Sleep of Endymion (painted in Rome in 1792 and exhibited with great success at the Salon of 1793), was a deliberate contrast to the overt masculinity espoused by David’s republican heroes. With the end of the Terror and downfall of the Jacobins, young artists such as Girodet and Gérard, having had to conform to the austerity imposed by the revolution, could now safely embrace unconventional dress and eccentric behavior, rebelling against the authoritarian David. Both painters were loosely associated with the group known as the Barbus (bearded ones), which emphasized themes that departed from David’s republican idealism in compositions with exaggerated lineal forms and unusual lighting, whether moonlight (as in Endymion) or sunset (Gérard’s Belisarius). It is no accident that the head and pose of the sleeping Endymion is reproduced exactly on the body of the young guide, who lies recumbent in the blind Belisarius’ arms.
Belisarius was Gérard’s first great success. Pressured by his friends to exhibit at the Salon of 1795, the artist chose a subject that his master David had painted fifteen years earlier, but in a very different mood. Painted in six weeks, Belisarius met with critical acclaim and eclipsed the paintings of his contemporaries. The smaller version was produced in 1797 in response to the commentators on the 1795 Salon, who praised Gérard’s composition but criticized the execution of Belisarius’ right arm and foot. In our version Gérard corrected these imperfections and also added the helmet hanging from Belisarius’ belt, to emphasize the general’s earlier distinction and thus highlight the injustice of his fall from favor. The reasons for the changes made by Gérard were already sufficiently well-known for them to be explained precisely by the critic Le Breton.
This painting contrasted directly with the republican subjects of David, as Gérard is making a direct and poignant reference to the return of the émigrés only to find their property seized with, in some cases, little prospect of recovery. Unlike David’s two versions of this subject, which show the old general seated, begging at the gates of Constantinople and suddenly recognized by one of his former soldiers, Gérard’s Belisarius strides forward, a monumental figure who dominates the canvas space. Whereas David’s young guide stands between the seated general’s arms, Gérard’s lone general, who now becomes savior rather than dependent, carries the poisoned boy, the snake that has attacked him still coiled around his leg. Joachim Le Breton noted in his review that Gerard chose not to represent Belisarius as “mendicant” (begging). Instead, Gerard “ennobled his [Belisarius’s] distress, and [in doing so] further tapped an abundant subject’s compassion, melancholy sentiment, and heightened its interest“.
It is interesting to compare Gérard’s general with that of the Belisarius Resting of Antoine-Denis Chaudet (1763-1810); while the former is more hirsute, the facial features are similar in both and the memory of Chaudet’s striking image may have remained with Gérard when he produced his own painting. Chaudet’s terracotta was exhibited at the Salon of 1791 (number 549, no dimensions, now lost), but was repeated in bronze; a fine example, dated year 2 (1794) was recently on the New York art market.
The sun setting over the hilly landscape in the background, with the yellowy-pink sky reflected in the water, represents a major departure in French history painting. This did not escape the Salon critics notice; Gérard’s Belisarius was the most talked about painting at the 1795 Salon with many lauding him as David’s most able pupil. In his later career, however, Gérard virtually abandoned the painting of great history subject pictures in favour of the more financially rewarding art of portraiture; he earned the title of “painter of Kings, and the King of painters”, even though the kings and princes he was painting (Napoleon’s brothers, brothers-in-law, ministers and generals) had been raised only recently from relatively modest circumstances. Belisarius, despite its success, was Gérard’s last subject from antiquity.
The theme of the return of the émigrés was treated in a similar allusion by Guérin, in his Return of Marcus Sextus. Here the sorrowing soldier, displaying none of the stoic indifference to tragedy so characteristic of David’s male heroes, finds upon his return from exile the body of his dead wife, who lies recumbent in a poignant reversal of the Pietà, mourned by their weeping daughter. Gérard’s Belisarius may be paralleled in a similar fashion to an ancient iconographic theme, the figure of Saint Christopher (the Christ carrier) bearing the young Christ upon his shoulders.
Belisarius (c. 505-565 a.d.) was one of the most famous generals of the later Roman Empire. Born in Germania, a district of the Empire won by Augustus’s grandson some 500 years earlier, he was an outsider who had won his position on merit. After an astonishing military career in the service of Justinian he was eventually suspected of disloyalty and what should have been a distinguished retirement ended with house arrest and confiscation by the jealous Emperor of the vast rewards previously showered upon him. In reality Belisarius was restored to favor shortly before his death, but the story of his downfall was embellished to become that of the great general blinded by his Emperor and scorned by the very people whom he had spent his life defending. The fiction of Belisarius wandering as a blind beggar through the streets of Constantinople, which was adopted by Jean-François Marmontel in his Bélisaire, and then by poets and painters such as David, Peyron and Gérard, first appeared in the 10th century.
The success of Gérard’s painting lasted some years after its first exhibition in 1795. Landon, in his 1802 edition of the Annales du Musée, where the Norman engraving is reproduced, announced in an Avis de l’Éditeur that in response to a large number of requests for colored reproductions, he would begin a first attempt with Gérard’s Belisarius, offering prints at 12 francs each. The absence in any records of such a production suggests that demand was insufficient and Landon must have abandoned the enterprise. However, Louis Bonaparte’s fervent request to buy the painting and its eventual sale to no less a collector than the stepson of the Emperor, attests to its continuing popularity some dozen years after the work was first exhibited.
The large Salon painting was never engraved and we can be sure that it was the smaller version here that was the subject of the two contemporary engravings directly after the painting. The first made by C. Normand in 1802 for Landon’s Annales du Musée, clearly reproduces the small version rather than the large salon painting, since the latter did not include the helmet hanging at Belisarius’ belt. The second, repeating the same image but far more finished, was made by Auguste Desnoyers in 1806 and dedicated to the great statesman and imperial Grand Chamberlain Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. Talleyrand and his wife were both the subjects of major portraits by Gérard but there is no direct documentary evidence of Talleyrand’s ownership of this picture. Sometime before the 23rd January 1813 (the date of a letter to the sculptor Canova, remarking on the painting), possibly even several years earlier, this version of Belisarius was acquired by Count Giovanni Battista Sommariva (1760-1826), a Milanese who had made a fortune thanks to his connections with the French administration in Italy and who moved to Paris in the early 1800s. Sommariva was a major patron, notably of Prud’hon (who was also patronized by Talleyrand) with a considerable art collection, much of it today in the Louvre and other French public institutions. Sommariva’s collection was bequeathed to his son Luigi, who died in 1838, and the Gérard was sold in the Sommariva sale held at their Parisian hôtel particulier on the 18th-23rd February 1839. There it was bought by the banker Jules Delessert (1773-1847), who built an astonishing collection of old and recent masters; at his death he bequeathed it to his brother François Delessert (1780-1868) and it was then sold in the latter’s estate sale held at his hôtel particulier in Paris on the 15th-18th March 1869, lot 150, for 4,700 francs.