Charles Meynier was a pupil of François André Vincent and one of the great Neo-Classicist decorators of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in France. In 1789 he shared the Prix de Rome with Anne-Louis Girodet, but stayed in Rome only briefly because of the Revolution. On returning to France, Meynier exhibited regularly at the Salon, becoming renowned as a painter of classical history, mythology, and Napoleonic themes. Meynier's richly-colored, decorative style was inspired by ancient art which he used to full effect in commissions for decorative projects such as designs for the bas reliefs and statues for the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in 1806, as well as ceilings in the Tuileries and the Louvre, where he executed four major ceiling decorations, one of which depicts Athena directing the Arts of France (1819). Meynier was elected a member of the Institute in 1815 and Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1825.
The pendant to the present painting is Pierre-Narcisse Guérin's Cephalus and Aurora, now in the Louvre (fig. 1). Both paintings were commissioned by Jacques-Louis David's friend and admirer, Count Giovanni Battista Sommariva (1760-1826), and were exhibited together in the Salon of 1810. Charles Landon, who saw the present painting at the 1810 Salon, described the subject in his Annales:
'One sees in the painting of M. Meynier, wisdom personified as Minerva. The goddess protects a young man who represents Adolescence. A group of cupids fluttering nearby direct their arrows at him, but these are repelled by the goddess' inpenetrable shield. In the foreground is a sleeping young woman, nude and unadorned, who represents Volupté. The young man looks at her with longing, resisting her charm with apparent effort. A little cupid approaches and tries to pull him toward the woman, but the youth resists' (Landon, op. cit.).
Count Sommariva's patronage of Italian and French Neo-Classical art is of the greatest importance. Of the new collectors who had successfully emerged from upheavals of the Revolution, the Counter-Revolution, the Empire, and even the restored Bourbon monarchy, it was he alone who patronized contemporary art on a truly significant scale. Sommariva was amongst the very first men in Paris to start building a picture gallery of pre-Revolutionary stature, both in terms of quality and quantity. It was said at the time that the way to Sommariva's house was as familiar to Parisians as the way to the Louvre. By 1820 Sommariva had already acquired major works by David (for example, the Cupid and Psyche, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art), Girodet (Sommariva owned his Pygmalion and Galatea, which most contemporary critics believed to be the greatest masterpiece of the nineteenth century), Prud'hon, (whose masterful portrait of Sommariva now hangs in Burlington House, London), Guérin and Gérard. Of the major figure painters who worked for him, including Meynier, Mongez, Dubois, Fremont, Drolling, Granger, and Horace Vernet, only Gros and Ingres' names are absent.
Sommariva's villa on Lake Como, which had been built for the Clerici family, and is now known as Villa Carlotta, was filled with sculptures by Canova (including his famous Magdalene), Luigi Acquisti, and other leading Italian artists. Large scale paintings of mythological and other antique subjects seemed to have been his penchant. If his taste was perhaps somewhat austere, there seems to have been an undercurrent of eroticism as exemplified in the present painting. Francis Haskell describes Sommariva as 'the greatest amateur of his day' and asserts that '...Sommariva played the most influential role in Europe - outside royal and governmental circles - in keeping alive 'historical' painting of the traditional kind when it was already threatened by new departures from every quarter' (F. Haskell, op. cit., p. 691).
For a much fuller discussion of Sommariva's life and patronage, see F. Haskell, An Italian Patron of Neo-Classic Art, the Zaharoff Lecture, 1972.
The present painting will be included in the forthcoming monograph on the artist being prepared by Ms. Isabelle Mayer-Michalon.