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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
|A Monk, Visiting a Fellow Monk in a Penitentiary Cell, 1830-40
Pen and black ink with wash on medium weight pale buff paper
34.1 x 27.0 cm
François-Marius Granet is today admired principally for his fluid landscape sketches, which, in their easy evocation of the shifting effects of weather and light, seem to prefigure the work of the Impressionists.[i] In his own day, however, Granet was renowned for large, formal paintings of quasi-historical interior scenes. This ink drawing of two monks in a penitentiary cell, from relatively late in the artist’s long career,[ii] is typical of his favored subject matter. From his Salon debut in 1799, when he exhibited a painting of the cloister of the Feuillants,[iii] to the end of his life, when he tackled subjects such as the Communion of the first Christians in the catacombs,[iv] Granet was preoccupied with depicting scenes of religious life from bygone eras. Like his friends Pierre Révoil and Fleury Richard, whose idealized representations of medieval chivalry came to define the so-called “Troubadour style”and with whom he once shared quarters in an abandoned Parisian convent[v]Granet was nostalgic for the social and religious order of the past. His art, as well as his writings, exude longing for a simpler, more stable time. Granet’s highly successful ‘Capuchin Choir’ paintings, [vi] for exampleshowing a group of bearded friars in the choir of Santa Maria della Consolazione in Romewere begun in 1810, the year after the Capuchin monastery had been shut down in the French annexation of the Papal States. These are not documentary scenes, then, so much as wishful restorations, imaginative efforts to return the brotherhood to its former dignity and significance. A resident of Rome from 1802 to 1824, Granet was “mortified” by the Napoleonic occupation, ruing that “the military drum had silenced the sound of chants and prayer.”[vii] Visiting the desolate Capuchin church, Granet found himself re-creating in his mind’s eye “the movements of all the monks I used to see there…My spirit was so keenly aroused by all these thoughts that I resolved to do a large painting on this subject.”[viii] Granet painted his first treatment of the scene in the choir itself, hiring an old man to pose for him in a Capuchin habit: “He was the only one in Rome who dared to wear it in public.”[ix]
This was Granet’s preferred creative method during his years in Italy. Having discovered an architectural space resonant with history and atmospherehe was especially attracted to subterranean locations such as crypts, sepulchers, grottoes and catacombsGranet would compose a scene appropriate to the setting and have models enact it for him on site.[x] The current drawing, however, differs from such earlier works in seeming to be pure invention. In contrast to the carefully observed ink and watercolor studies that Granet made of Roman monuments, this drawing has a loose, ad hoc feel. The odd configuration of stone slabs on which the seated monk languishes appears to have been improvised around the figure, and the two monks, with their strange proportions, likewise seem not to have been rendered from life. A claw-like hand emerges from an incongruously low point behind the standing monk’s protrusive belly, while the seated figure’s shins are unnaturally long. Facial features have only been broadly indicatedchins and mouths are missingand even as the prisoner monk stares directly at the viewer, his eyes are invisible within their deep, hollowed-out sockets. The illegibility of the standing monk’s gestureis he raising his hand in greeting, surprise or benediction?and the seated monk’s mute catatonia, adds powerfully to the emotional impact of the scene. The image of the shackled and defeated prisoner is disquietingly gloomy. While Granet’s work is usually infused with nostalgic longing, here the atmosphere is utterly bleak.
The dark emotional tenor of the drawing would seem to support the attribution of a late date. Granet’s memoirs reveal that the artist deeply regretted returning to France, which he did in order to take a position at the Louvre and thereby gain financial security for his family. “I went along,” he writes of his departure from Rome, “like some poor creature whose parents are marrying her to a man she does not love. I kept looking back, until there was no longer anything to see.”[xi] For his remaining twenty-five years, the artist would continue to look back, thinking especially of Italy’s sacred cloistered spaces. The shy Granet, for whom the demands of a formal dinner were sheer punishment, seems to have had a special affinity for the monk’s life of prayer and meditation. “How full your heart is with sweet reverie when you have the good fortune to breathe that pure air!” he wrote, recalling a visit to a Benedictine monastery, “How readily you would forget all the commitments you have made to society. But we are not all born for such happiness.”[xii] In his final years, Granet’s only recourse was to “withdraw from…society [and] retire noiselessly to [the] studio, the only place where the artist remains free.”[xiii] Knowing how Granet pined for the peace and calm of monastic life, it is hard not to read the figure of the persecuted, imprisoned monk as a tortured self-portrait.
[i] Recent exhibitions at the Frick Collection and the American Academy in Rome have focused almost exclusively on this aspect of Granet’s oeuvre.
[ii] Jon Whiteley has related this undated sheet to similar drawings from the 1830s and 40s. See Whiteley, Poussin to Cezanne: French Drawings and Watercolours in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum, 2002), 360.
[iii] François-Marius Granet, Memoirs of the Painter Granet translated by Joseph Focarino, in Edgar Munhall, François-Marius Granet, Watercolors from the Musée Granet at Aix-en-Provence, exh. cat. (New York: The Frick Collection, 1988), 16-17.
[iv] Ibid., 55.
[v] Philip Conisbee, “Granet in his Time,” in Paesaggu Perduti, Granet a Roma 1802-1824, exh. cat. (Milan: Electra, 1996), 33.
[vi] These pictures were so popular, Granet produced at least fifteen variants. Conisbee, 36.
[vii] Granet, in Munhall, 36.
[viii] Ibid., 38.
[x] For his painting The Painter Jacques Stella in Prison, Granet posed several men in the ancient Tabularium on the Capitoline Hill. Ibid.,29.
[xi] Ibid., 53.
[xii] Ibid., 52.
[xiii] Ibid., 55.