Medium: Oil on Canvas
Size: 105.5 x 98 cm
Signed: and inscribed on the reverse stretcher: Arch of Constantine. / N. Poussin. Pxt.
Also known as Lemaire-Poussin, due to his frequent close collaborations with Nicolas Poussin, Jean Lemaire specialised in landscapes and architectural capriccios populated by mythological figures. He studied under Claude Vignon before moving to Rome, where there is evidence of his presence as early as 1613. It was there he became associated with Nicolas Poussin, who arrived in Rome in 1624. By 1636 Lemaire had begun the decorative scheme commissioned by Philip IV of Spain for the Buen Retiro palace, then returning to Paris. Poussin was himself back in the French capital by then and reaffirmed his relationship with Lemaire, who became Poussin’s principal collaborator and assistant in the decoration of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre. Lemaire travelled to Italy for the last time in 1642, before returning to France for good, where he was made keeper of the king’s paintings at the Louvre and the Tuileries, at the suggestion of François Sublet de Noyers.
Jean Lemaire was sixteen years old when he left for Rome in 1613, remaining there for more than twenty years painting capriccios of the city’s inspiring monuments and landscape. By the early 1630s Lemaire was a well-known and established artist, his reputation earning him an important commission from the king of Spain in 1636; this completed he returned to Paris, being accorded the honorific title of Peintre du Roi in 1639. He remained in the French capital for at least three years, until 1642 when he left for a further, shorter sojourn in the Eternal City, as the companion of Poussin, with whom he had worked both in Rome and Paris. The genius of Poussin and the magnificence of Rome were the principal influences on Lemaire’s art and both are notably apparent in this painting.
Anthony Blunt, author of several studies and the first exhaustive catalogue raisonné of the works of Nicolas Poussin, proposed that Lemaire and Poussin were not only close friends but also occasional collaborators, Lemaire providing the architectural elements for several major compositions by the more renowned Poussin. The letters they exchanged are mostly lost but from two extant examples Blunt concludes that their friendship went beyond the mutual respect to be expected between the great master and his principal associate. Poussin, in a letter to a patron, distinguishes Lemaire from the rest of his studio by referring to ‘Monsieur Le Marie et toutte la brigata.’ The decoration of the Long Gallery of the Louvre, although planned by Poussin, was actually executed by Lemaire with the assent of the King himself.
Like Poussin, Lemaire looked to traditional pictorial iconography for his subjects and, in this work, addressed a popular story from Ovid also painted by Poussin (Mercury, Herse, and Aglaurus, Ecole Nationale Superieure Des Beaux-Arts , Paris) as well as other seventeenth and eighteenth-century artists.
‘The god with the caduceus lifted upwards on his paired wings and as he flew looked down on the Munychian fields, the land that Minerva loves, and on the groves of the cultured Lyceum. That day happened to be a festival of Pallas, when, by tradition, innocent girls carried the sacred mysteries to her temple, in flower-wreathed baskets, on their heads. The winged god, circled eagerly on tilted wings over its hoped-for prey, so agile Mercury slanted in flight over the Athenian hill, spiralling on the same winds. As Lucifer shines more brightly than the other stars, and golden Phoebe outshines Lucifer, so Herse was pre-eminent among the virgin girls, the glory of that procession of her comrades. Jupiter’s son was astonished at her beauty, and, even though he hung in the air, he was inflamed.’ – Ovid, Metamorphoses, book II : 708-736
Ovid goes on to describe how Mercury next implored Herse’s sister Aglauros to aid him:
‘I am the one who carries my father’s messages through the air. I won’t hide my reason. Only be loyal to your sister and consent to be called my child’s aunt. Herse is the reason I am here. I beg you to help a lover.‘
Jean Lemaire here depicts the Mysteries of the goddess Minerva in the kind of architectural setting for which he was renowned and that he contributed to several compositions by Poussin. These rites had their origin in the birth of Minerva’s ward, Erichthonius, son of the god Vulcan. Erichthonius was born a snake-like creature and the goddess hid the child in a basket of flowers to safely carry him to her temple on the Athenian Acropolis, where he was raised. Her Mysteries, their secret hidden in baskets of flowers carried by young virgins, re-enacted the story.
In Lemaire’s scene, Mercury circles above an open forum between the monumental arch in the foreground and a Roman temple in the distance. He wears traditional attributes: a winged helmet and sandals, and carries the caduceus mentioned by Ovid. Below, groups of figures dance and rush to join the festivity in brightly coloured robes.
Echoing the many figures are two substantial statues that flank the triumphal arch which remains the true focus of the composition. They represent the two gods most associated with merriments: Bacchus, the god of wine who holds a vessel, and the Roman goddess Felicitas, whose attributes were a caduceus and a cornucopia, which she holds here. If the passage from Ovid is something of a pretext for Lemaire’s architectural landscape, the painter has also been faithful in his detail to Ovid’s story.
Another treatment of the subject is mentioned by Blunt: an ex-Cook collection painting once titled A sacrifice to Athena with Mercury and Herse, formerly attributed to Poussin, which Blunt convincingly credits to Lemaire. This larger composition, though lacking the central triumphal Arch, shows the same Corinthian- capitolled, six columned Roman temple, its tympanon, or pedimental triangle, topped by three graceful statues similarly posed in both works. In both paintings Mercury appears in the sky above the arch which, in the Cook painting, dominates the left side of the painting, his pose in each composition a mirror image of the other.
Lemaire was particularly esteemed for his ability to render architectural elements faithfully and convincingly and it was this skill that allowed his works to be sometimes attributed to Poussin himself. Our composition is constructed with the formality of a baroque stage setting, the immediate foreground dominated by the principal participants placed before the great arch, which acts as a proscenium through which the eye is led to the well-populated forecourt of the distant temple. The chequered marble pavement in the foreground area, like that in the Cook painting, draws the viewer in but, not extending beyond the great arch, separates the fore and middle ground from the more distant perspective. A fantastical colonnade, which is surely the artist’s invention (Bernini’s great curved colonnade in the Piazza San Pietro was not begun until just two years before Lemaire’s death) provides a backdrop against which the figures are placed, their different scales indicating their distance from the viewer. Although Ovid set his tale in Athens, Lemaire’s most obvious liberty was to transpose the location to Rome, which he knew well. At the centre of the work stands Rome’s iconic Arch of Constantine, drawn recognisably and with exacting description. Its accuracy and imposing monumentality lend a gravitas and structure to the otherwise fantastical and theatrical scene.
The Arch of Constantine, still seen today, is positioned between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill. It was erected by the Roman Senate to commemorate Emperor Constantine the Great’s victory over the tyrant Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312.5 It was the last classical triumphal arch in Rome and the only one to make extensive use of spolia, re-using several major reliefs from 2nd century imperial monuments to Hadrian. The arch spans the Via Triumphalis, the path by which victorious emperors entered the city in triumph. Known from contemporary evidence to be by the artist, Lemaire’s painting at Rueil, the chateau which he decorated for Cardinal Richelieu, also included a painting of the Arch of Constantine. The rendering was engraved by Silvestre and copied in the Topographia Galliae, 1660. Years spent in Rome would have familiarised Lemaire with the Arch’s every facet.