Jean-Baptiste Hilaire (Audun-le-Tiche 1753-after 1822 Paris)
Jean-Baptiste Hilaire (Audun-le-Tiche 1753-after 1822 Paris)

A desert landscape with travellers passing through the Valley of the Tombs, Palmyra

Jean-Baptiste Hilaire (Audun-le-Tiche 1753-after 1822 Paris)
A desert landscape with travellers passing through the Valley of the Tombs, Palmyra
signed 'JB. Hilair' (lower left)
oil on canvas
31 3/8 x 59 5/8 in. (79.8 x 151.5 cm.)
Gifted by the wife of Baron Lejeune, future Duchess of Carafa and Noia, to Étienne Paul Barat, in 1896, and by descent to,
Anonymous sale [Monsieur M.K.]; Tajan, Paris, 16-17 November 1999, lot 188.
with Galerie Didier Aaron & Cie, Paris, by 2000, where acquired by the present owner.
Paris, Mairie du 5? arrondissement, Centre culturel du Panthéon, Moi, Zénobie, Reine de Palmyre, 18 September-16 December 2001, p. 324, no. 42.
Post lot text

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Lot Essay

Born in 1753, Jean-Baptiste Hilaire trained under Jean-Baptiste Leprince (1734-1781), himself an artist who travelled widely, passing his fascination with distant lands and the Orient to his student. With the Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, Hilaire embarked on the ship Atalante in 1776, sailing for Greece and the Bosphorus. Here he drew prolifically, with the principle aim of illustrating the Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce, published by Choiseul-Gouffier. Named ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Choiseul-Gouffier opened up Constantinople to French artists, including Hilaire, who made many tours in the region at the request, amongst others, of the Swedish diplomat Ignatius Mouradgea d’Ohsson (1740-1807), who wanted him to work on his Tableau Général de l’Empire Othoman, which appeared in three volumes in 1788, 1790 and 1820.

It seems that Hilaire never actually travelled to Palmyra. His composition, though a faithful topographical depiction of the Valley of Tombs, is almost certainly based on the work of another Frenchman, the artist Louis-François Cassas (1756-1827), who visited the site in 1785 and made an exact drawing. Apart from the group of four columns that Hilaire transferred from a different area in Palmyra to fill the left-hand side of his composition, the only point at which he strayed from archaeological exactitude, the Valley of the Tombs, is shown exactly as it would have been. In the picture, the different funerary towers can be identified, and were erected by wealthy patrician families in the 1st Century AD, the most important of which were the towers of Elahbel, Jamblique and Khitot.

In addition to his topographical interest, Hilaire evidently wished to portray the exoticism and picturesque nature of the scene, with the two caravans crossing one another, one coming from Baghdad and the other from Damas. Prefiguring the taste for Orientalist painting that flourished in the nineteenth century, Hilaire took great delight in carefully detailing the accoutrements and accessories of the caravans and the travellers, animating the Valley of the Tombs with abundant life.

At the end of August 2015, the three main funerary towers in the historic Palmyra site were wilfully destroyed by an explosion, obliterating some of the most precious monuments from this antique city. In the present work Hilaire thus unwittingly passed on to posterity an important and moving depiction of this lost cultural heritage.

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