Size: 81 x 115 cm
Signed: and dated lower left: L Gauffier Roma 1791
Literature : Explication et critique impartial a Paris 1791; The Daughters of Lycomedes play lyre and tambourine, Burlington 131, February 1989 p. xvi
1791 Paris Salon, no. 720 as Achille reconnu par Ulysse
Born in Poitiers, Gauffier won the Prix de Rome in 1784 which enabled the young artist to leave for training at the Academie de France in Italy. Choosing to remain there for the entirety of his tragically short career, Gauffier consistently contributed paintings for exhibition in the Paris Salon, and by doing so established a reputation as an excellent history painter, and a demand for his portraiture.
Gauffier painted a wide breadth of history subjects, a theme at the heart of neoclassical painting, including a masterful composition titled Cleopatra and Octavian (1787-88, National Gallery of Scotland), a scene taken from Plutarch’s Life of Marc Anthony. Gauffier not only embraced the neoclassical principle of classicised story-telling, but the movement’s other tenets. The artist’s colours are bright and primary in the picture, arresting Poussinesque colours when compared to Rococo’s pastel palette. Gauffier created perspective in the picture here with architectural elements, specifically Doric columns and a peristyle; the light and shadow in the painting are dramatically emphasised by them. Whilst the artist uses sharp lines to draw the characteristic strong aquiline profiles and drapery of his figures, Gauffier at the same time injects this near-two-dimensionality with a palpable energy: the girls pluck instruments, gasp and lean their weight into a strong wind; Achilles’ muscles tense with the weight of the sword as he steadies the plumed helmet on his head; Ulysses’s recognition of the boy is a theatrical gesture. Far from the relaxed recline of a Boucher Venus, the dramatic poses of Gauffier’s figures are calculated and didactic, there to clearly communicate the canonical story.
In reaction to lingering Rococo painting, the movement harkened by David’s 1785 Salon painting Belasarius expressed a desire to return to the perceived stoicism and purity of Republican Rome and the ideals of Athenian democracy. Much like the nostalgia that fuelled the Romanticism of Casper David Friedrich and Delacroix, Neoclassicism’s longing for ancient times was based on a misunderstanding of historical realities. Nonetheless, Neoclassicism’s celebration of classical ideals as they were understood in contemporary France served a contemporary purpose. The French revolution in 1789 was the nail in the coffin of Rococo’s Several single figure portrait paintings show a kind likeness to their subjects, but Gauffier also used relatively expansive and detailed backgrounds in these portraits, both interiors and landscapes, to further communicate the persona of his sitters.
A multi-figure family portrait André François Miot comte de Melito, et sa famille, recently on the art market, shows a neo-classical interior with two pieces of strong monumental statuary, and a painting of Rome in back of a surprisingly touching family scene, full of its figures energetic movement and undisguised affection. A full-length portrait of Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex places the dashing young man before fully realized landscape, while Gauffier’s portrait of Elizabeth Vassal alludes to her accomplishment with the placement of books and a guitar in much the way Renaissance and French portraiture had for three centuries. The sitters demure yet direct gaze fully engages the viewer in a manner that brings her to life. Gauffier’s gentle renderings of the environs and landscapes of Italy concentrate on horizons..
The story of Achilles recognized by Ulysses begins when Achilles mother, the goddess Thetis, is forewarned her son will die young and in an efforts to save him, tried to make him immortal by dipping him in the river Styx. Left vulnerable at the part of the body by which she held him, his heel, Thetis dresses her son as a girl and hides him amongst the many daughters of a nearby Greek King, Lycomedes. When Ulysses is told the Greeks shall not win the impending Trojan War without the young hero Achilles fighting for them, Ulysses sets a trap: he presents the daughters of Lycomedes with gifts of jewels and dresses, and one set of armour. The daughters rush to play with the dresses and jewels, while one girl alone rushes towards the helmet, sword and shield. Thus Ulysses uncovers that this girl is Achilles disguised; he dies young, the greatest of Greek warriors, after killing Hector and defeating the Trojans.