• Travel, Science & Natural Hist auction at Christies

    Sale 5809

    Travel, Science & Natural History

    15 October 2009, London, South Kensington

  • Lot 116

    F.C., circa 1820

    Interior of a Brazilian forest

    Price Realised  

    F.C., circa 1820
    Interior of a Brazilian forest
    signed with initials 'F.C.' (lower right)
    oil on canvas
    28½ x 36¾in. (72.3 x 93.3cm.)


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    The present picture, discovered this year and hitherto unrecorded, is the first oil painting that might be attributed to Clarac. Elegantly signed with the initials 'F. C.' on a branch in the lower foreground, it depicts the Brazilian forest, and, as in Clarac's celebrated Salon drawing, shows a fallen tree acting as a bridge, with Brazilian Indians hunting, and with the same luxuriant flora. It differs in showing a clearing, with a view to a waterfall beyond, and includes a panther in the left foreground instead of the ring-tailed coati and snake in the drawing.

    The initials suggest an attribution to Charles-Othon-Frédéric-Jean-Baptiste, Comte de Clarac (1777-1847) whose Salon exhibit of 1819 (Intérieur d'une forêt du Brésil) is to date the only known worked up picture from his Brazilian journey. This Salon picture, engraved by Fortier in 1822, became the iconic and influential first image of the native forest of Brazil painted from life to enthrall a European audience. Its exhibition in Paris in 1819 precedes the issue of the first wave of scientific and artistic descriptions of Brazil that followed the opening up of the colony in 1808 and the arrival of the first significant embassies in 1816: notably Wied-Neuwied's Reise nach Brasilien (1820-21), Spix and Martius's Reise in Brasilien (1823-32), Martius's mammoth Flora Brasiliensis (from 1840-), Rugendas's Voyage Pittoresque dans le Brésil (1827-35) and Debret's Voyage Pittoresque et historique au Brésil (1834-39). Acquired by the Louvre in 2004, it was the subject of an exhibition at the Louvre in 2005-6 (Le comte de Clarac et la Forêt vierge du Brésil).

    The present composition compares closely to Debret's lithograph Vallée dans la Serra do Mar [1834], which suggests that the artist met and possibly sketched with Debret in Brazil in 1816. Given that Debret was in Rio at the same time as Clarac, as part of the artistic mission attached to the French embassy, it is probable that Clarac and Debret met, and that Debret's field sketches would then have informed Clarac's Brazilian drawings. Indeed, the close similarities of the overall composition and particular elements in the present picture and the Debret lithograph (the subject is undoubtably the same) seem to suggest they may have sketched together on an excursion into the country north of Rio de Janeiro.

    Clarac travelled to Brazil in 1816 as 'gentilhomme d'ambassade' with the Duke of Luxembourg's embassy to the Brazilian court. He was in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro and its environs, before travelling on to Guyana and returning via the Antilles to France. He had sketched in Brazil and exhibited his famous Intérieur d'une forêt du Brésil at the Paris Salon of 1819, a sepia watercolour worked up reportedly from his field sketches made on the Rio Bonito north of Rio de Janeiro and from studies of tropical plants made on his return at Maximilian zu Wied's castle near Coblenz. The watercolour, the first great work of art to depict the Brazilian forest from nature, captured the public imagination and was more widely desseminated in Claude Fortier's engraving (Forêt vierge du Brésil) published in 1822. Humboldt praised it as the truest depiction of the Brazilian forest and sent his brother a copy of the engraving commenting 'Ich glaube, man schuf niemals etwas, das die Eigenart und Eigenschaften der Pflanzen besser ausdruckt', and it was in Darwin's mind's eye as he made his first excited forays into the Brazilian forest at Rio de Janeiro in 1832: 'As the gleams of sunshine penetrate the entangled mass, I was forcibly reminded of the two French engravings after the drawings of Maurice Rugendas & Le Compte Clavac [sic]; in these is well represented the infinite numbers of lianas and parasitic plants & the contrast of flourishing trees with the dead and rotten trunks.'

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