Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 41 x 60 cm
Signed: and dated lower left: Blanchard 1844
Private collection, France 1989; New York, Private collection
New Orleans Museum of Art, New York Stair Sainty Matthiesen, Cincinnati Taft Museum of Art, Romance and Chivalry: Literature and History reflected in early nineteenth century painting, June 1996 – February 1997, no 3, p. 150, ills. fig. 113.
Ideals of chivalry lived on in early Romantic novels with a contemporary setting particularly when they took place in an exotic or distant locale. One such book that was phenomenally successful was Bernardin de Saint Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (first published in 1788) which became an immediate bestseller and continued inspiring songs, poems, plays, ballets, operas, and pictures well into the nineteenth century. It is the sentimental story of two children of French parentage growing up on a tropical island, the Isle de France (Mauritius), their love, separation, and untimely deaths. It appealed to the same readership which enjoyed historical romances and troubadour themes.
This picture by Blanchard is unusual in the context of literary paintings for the large proportion of canvas given over to landscape rather than figures. It was clearly done by a painter with first-hand experience of exotic tropical flora, and includes minutely observed species from palm to cacti to Spanish moss. The scale relationship between the figures and their lush setting very effectively communicates the themes of naturalism and primitivism that appealed to the early Romantics. The episode represented here takes place when Paul and Virginia become lost on their mission to save a runaway slave. In a modern interpretation of a classic chivalric theme, Paul helps Virginia, who can no longer walk, fashion boots out of leaves for her bleeding feet. Although a large pictorial legacy developed with the numerous illustrations to the novel’s various editions, surprisingly few paintings of the subject are still known and this is certainly the most romantic.
 They include Jospeh Vernet’s La Mort de Virginie and Marguerite Gérard’s L’Enfance de Paul et Virginie. On the visual imagery of Paul et Virginie see Paul Toinet, Paul et Virginie: Répetoire Bibiliographique et Iconagraphique, Paris, 1963