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The Condemnation of Rhea Silvia by Amulius

The Condemnation of Rhea Silvia by Amulius
oil on canvas
9 ½ x 12 ¾ in. (24 x 32.5 cm.)
Genevieve Madec-Capy, and by descent in the family, from which acquired by the present owner.
G. Madec-Capy, Guillaume Guillon-Lethiere: peintre d'histoire (1760-1832), Ph.D. dissertation, 1997, pp.393, 630, no. P34, plate 26.

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Lot Essay

As a mixed-race artist who would emerge to become one of the most brilliant history painters working in France in the years immediately following the Revolution, Guillaume Guillon-Lethière (1760-1832) led a life that was little short of remarkable, his dazzling success entirely unprecedented in the rigidly hierarchical establishment of official art of the eighteenth century. Born on the island of Guadeloupe, Lethière was the son of Pierre Guillon, a wealthy white French colonial administrator, and Marie-Françoise Pepaye, a free woman of color. Although his proper surname was Guillon, as the third child of the family he initially styled himself ‘Le Tiers’ (‘The Third’), then ‘Lethiers’, and finally – from 1799, when he was formally recognized by his father -- ‘Lethière’. While accompanying his father to France in 1774, he entered the studio of Jean Baptiste Descamps at the Academy in Rouen, where he won a prize for drawing in 1776. The following year he moved to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Royale, studying under the history painter Gabriel François Doyen and winning a first-class medal in July 1782. He competed for the Prix de Rome in 1784 and again the following year, by which time the influence of Jacques-Louis David and Pierre Peyron had superseded that of his teachers, and he embraced a full-throated neoclassicism. He lost the Grand Prix again in 1786, but gained the attention of the Comte de Montmorin, a diplomat and friend of Louis XVI, who persuaded the Académie that Lethière was worthy of a Roman pension.

Having completed his training at the Palazzo Mancini, Lethière returned to Paris in 1791 and started a highly successful teaching studio, placing him in direct competition with David, whose studio was the most active and prestigious in the capital. In 1800, Lethière was introduced to Lucien Bonaparte (1775-1840), younger brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, and himself the recently appointed Minister of the Interior. The two men formed a fast and enduring friendship. When Napoleon appointed his brother Ambassador to Spain in November 1800, Lucien invited Lethière to travel to Madrid with him, entrusting the artist with finding important works of art for his growing collection.

In her comprehensive study of Lethière’s works, Geneviève Madec-Capy (1997) dates the present painting to around 1799, shortly before the artist departed Paris for Spain. It depicts a rarely represented subject from classical mythology, The Condemnation of Rhea-Sivia by Amulius. Rhea Silvia (also known as Ilia) was the mother of the twins Romulus and Remus, who according to legend founded the city of Rome. Her story is recounted by several ancient authors, principally Livy and Cassius Dio, as well as Virgil and Ovid. According to Livy, Rhea Silvia was the daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa, and descended from Aeneas. Her uncle, Amulius, seized his brother’s throne, killed Numitor’s son, and forced Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin, thus ensuring the line of Numitor would have no heirs. Rhea, however, would give birth to Romulus and Remus following her rape by Mars, the god of War. When Amulius learned of the birth of the twins he imprisoned Rhea Silvia and ordered the execution of her sons, the dramatic moment in the story depicted in Lethière’s painting. This cruel injustice is averted, however, when the servant delegated to kill the boys (rendered on the far left of Lethière’s composition, restraining them as they reach out to their mother) takes pity on them and sets them adrift on the river Tiber. They are later found along the banks of the river by a she-wolf who, having just lost her own cubs, suckled them back to health. Rhea Silvia was herself spared death through the intercession of Amulius’s daughter. Ultimately, Romulus and Remus would live to overthrow Amulius, reinstate Numitor as king and go on to found Rome.

The present painting is a highly finished oil sketch, probably intended as a modello for a large history painting which was never executed. In it, Lethière laid out the entire composition, with its multitude of background observers, focusing the viewer’s attention on the dramatic central encounter of the prostrate Rhea-Silvia and merciless Amulius. Heightening the emotional drama are the striking and beautiful effects of lighting achieved by Lethière which maximize the narrative clarity of an otherwise complex composition.

Lethière’s career would continue its successful trajectory into the new century, though not without setbacks. Following his year-long sojourn in Spain, Lethière reopened his studio upon his return to France in November 1801. Shortly thereafter, in response to a racist insult directed at him by an officer at the Café Militaire in Paris, the artist became embroiled in a fight with a group of soldiers, one of whom he killed, prompting the government to intervene and close his workshop. Driven out of Paris, Lethière and his family roamed Europe until 1807, when, through the influence of Lucien Bonaparte, the painter was appointed Director of the French Academy in Rome. Ingres would be one of his pensionnaires and most celebrated pupil, and produced a series of sympathetic portrait drawings of Lethière and all the members of his family.

Having fallen into disfavor following the Bourbon Restoration, Lethière was removed from his post as Director of the French Academy in Rome in 1816 and returned to Paris, where he reopened his studio. He was elected to the Institut in 1818 and was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. He proudly acknowledged his biracial heritage and remained a life-long Republican and supporter of the abolition of slavery. In 1822, he made his last important painting, an allegory commemorating the struggle for Haiti’s independence, The Oath of the Ancestors (Cathedral, Port-au-Prince, Haiti), which he signed ‘Lethière, né à la Guadeloupe’ and sent clandestinely to Port-au-Prince in March 1823. (The Republic of Haiti, established in 1804, would not be recognized by the French state until 1825.) This monumental canvas recorded the alliance between the Napoleonic general Alexandre Pétion, known as the 'chef des mulâtres', and the Black officer Jean Jacques Dessalines, who are depicted swearing the oath of the union that led in 1802 to the expulsion of the French army from the island, resulting in Haiti’s independence. Lethière’s funeral in 1832 was a major public event in Paris, his eulogy delivered by his old friend, the author Alexandre Dumas.

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