Consigned to virtual oblivion soon after his death in 1824, for most of the last two centuries Girodet was overshadowed by his teacher, Jacques-Louis David. It was only with the advent of a comprehensive exhibition of his varied and visionary works in his hometown of Montargis in 1967 that Girodet was introduced to a modern public and the restoration of his reputation began in earnest. Among a brilliant ‘team of rivals” working in David’s studio in the 1780s, Girodet is today recognized as 'one of the greatest painters of his generation' (Jean Lacambre, 1974). His position as the most important and original French neoclassical history painter after David was definitively established with a vast and revelatory international retrospective held in Paris, New York, Chicago and Montreal in 2005-07.
The present painting is the most significant rediscovery in Girodet’s oeuvre since that exhibition, and among the most important history paintings from the years immediately preceding the French Revolution to reappear in decades. Its rarity is greatly increased by its nearly perfect, unlined, and untouched state of preservation. Published and reproduced here for the first time, Coriolanus Taking Leave of his Family was Girodet’s first submission to the competition for the prestigious Prix de Rome, executed in the spring and summer of 1786. The genesis of the painting is well-known and thoroughly documented.
Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy was born on 5 January 1767 in the provincial town of Montargis, one hundred miles south of Paris. His father was a well-to-do directeur des domaines of the Duc d’Orléans and his mother the daughter of a member of the Papal Court. Orphaned at an early age, Girodet was taken into the Paris home of a close family friend, Benois-François Trioson, physician to Louis XVI’s aunts and a person of standing in the capital, who ensured the boy’s education and artistic training. Dr. Trioson became a second father to Girodet, adopting him in 1809 and leaving him his fortune upon his death, thus establishing the artist’s lifelong financial security.
In March 1783, the sixteen-year-old Girodet enrolled at the Académie Royale de Peinture as a pupil of Nicolas René Jollain, a history painter and friend of Trioson. The following year he entered the studio of David, the most celebrated young painter in Paris, who was already revitalizing and redirecting the French school toward a new and morally rigorous classicism. An early biographer recorded that Girodet, awestruck with David’s genius, 'was so full of respect for the master that, every day, before going to his own room, he would prepare his palette in front of the Horatii.' At the time that Girodet arrived at the studio, David’s favorite pupil, Jean Germain Drouais, had just won the Prix de Rome, and the remarkable equipe of young painters in the workshop who vied for the master’s favor -- François Xavier Fabre, François Gerard, Antoine Jean Gros, Jean Baptiste Wicar, Jean Baptiste Isabey among them – were all poised to be the next prize-winner. Despite being the newest – and one of the youngest – members of David’s workshop, Girodet advanced quickly and threw himself headlong into the competition.
Established by Colbert with the founding of the Académie Royale in 1663, the Prix de Rome was the crowning achievement of academic training, a coveted prize won through a cut-throat elimination contest open only to the handful of surviving finalists. The winner received a stipend and a three to five- year stay at the Palazzo Mancini in Rome. Although not officially entered into the 1785 Prix de Rome, Girodet executed his first history painting, The Death of Camilla (Musée Girodet, Montargis; fig. 1) on the sidelines of the contest as something of a practice test, incorporating the lessons of his teachers, evident in both an expressive (if somewhat clumsy) sense of dramatic confrontation that he acquired from the study of David’s paintings, and a roseate, rococo palette adopted from Jollain.
The present, newly rediscovered painting dates from the next year, when Girodet first secured a place as an official finalist for the 1786 Prix de Rome. The competition involved a series of tests in which the apprentice artists competed anonymously, which included a ‘sketching contest’, held in one day, drawing the nude male figure, and finally the execution of a history painting to a specified size and format. On 24 March 1786, the Academy announced the finalists admitted to the contest: Fabre, Wicar, Duvivier, Vanderberghe, Messier, Guillon-Lethière and Girodet. On 1 April, the assembled Academicians announced the subject of the Grand Prix that each contestant would be required to render as a finished, large-scale history picture: 'le moment ou Coriolan, banni, quitte, avec fermeté, sa mère, sa femme, ses enfants et ses amis en pleurs' ('the moment that the banished Coriolanus, in tears, takes final leave of his mother, his wife, his children and his friends in tears').
To complete the final paintings, students were isolated in separate rooms at the Academy for 72 days and worked every day except Sundays and holidays. As soon as the subject was assigned, each executed a sketch for his composition. The same day, they transferred the sketches to counterproofs which were examined by the professors. While permitted to retain these counterproofs, the original sketches were relinquished, and kept under seal until judging occurred. A fundamental criterion was the fidelity of the final painting to the original sketch, and a contestant could be eliminated if he changed the composition significantly.
The subject of Girodet’s painting is the dramatic exile of the 5th-century B.C. Roman general Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, first recounted by Plutarch and Livy, but perhaps best known today from Shakespeare’s late tragedy. The hero of the Roman siege of the Volscian city of Corioli, Coriolanus is later turned against by the Romans because of his unmovable resistance to popular rule. He is brought to trial by the Senate, convicted and banished from the city. Neither the ancient accounts of Coriolanus nor Shakespeare’s dramatization spend much time on the episode of the hero’s painful separation from his family. While the artist closely follows the program for the subject as laid out by the Academy in the Procès-verbaux, he was left to embellish its otherwise spare directives. In an austere and decaying interior with an arched opening through which can be glimpsed the Roman campagna, Girodet arranges seven principal actors in the drama. At center is a tightly choreographed quartet, consisting of a stoic Coriolanus, cloaked in a red mantle, who is beseeched by his eldest son; his grief-stricken wife, Volumnia, and their youngest son who clings to her lap, overwhelmed by sorrow. To the right sits the general’s formidable mother, Veturia, who fights back tears. On the left stand two of Coriolanus’s discreetly woeful friends. The general’s helmet and armor can be seen abandoned on the far right of the composition, and a statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf -- ancient symbol of the city of Rome – presides over the scene.
The painting represents a significant advance over the artist’s Death of Camilla from just the previous year, and is a testament to the 19-year-old Girodet’s prodigious artistic development under David’s tutelage. His composition is sophisticated in its elegant, rhythmic ribbon of figures, each linked, one to the next, by a series of powerful glances and meaningful gestures. Solemn and graceful, his figures are exquisitely drawn, their flesh luminously realized, their draperies meticulously rendered. His composition has an amplitude and dignity previously absent from his works, clearly inspired by his close study and profound understanding of David’s masterpiece of 1784, The Oath of the Horatii (Louvre).
None of the submissions to the 1786 Prix de Rome by Girodet’s competitors is known today, but contemporary observers assessed Girodet’s painting as the outstanding entry to the competition. At this point, an unexpected turn of events derailed his likely victory. In late August 1786, Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre, First Painter to the King and Director of the Academy in Perpetuity, announced that the competition was annulled and no Prix de Rome laureate would be designated that year. No clear reason for Pierre’s decision was offered, but it was rumored that he had cancelled the competition because there was too great a similarity in style among the entries – most of which came from students of David. Bachaumont, in the Mèmoires secrets, suggested that the conservative Pierre, whose own work retained a decidedly retardetaire, late rococo manner, resented the ascendancy of David and his school. The critic claimed that the august academicians were 'humiliated and irritated at seeing all the prizes won by David’s students'. In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Descamps on 3 September 1786, Charles-Nicolas Cochin noted this injustice with outrage. Referring to Girodet, he remarked that the School of David had 'risen, by I don’t know what miracle, to such a height that students of the age of 19 are already men.' He went on to praise the entry by Guillon-Lethière, but opined that there was at least one other painting in the competition, 'by a young man named Giraudet [sic], which would have assuredly been the winning piece.' Girodet was deeply disheartened by the annulment, but was rewarded by David, who now felt sufficiently assured of his pupil’s skills to confer upon him the prestigious task of making a reduced replica of The Oath of the Horatii (1786; Toledo Museum of Art; fig. 2), commissioned by the Comte de Vaudreuil. (The replica is signed by David and finished by him, certainly, but substantially executed by Girodet.) It is likely that Girodet is also responsible for the beautiful, unfinished replica of David’s Death of Socrates in the Princeton Museum of Art, Princeton University.
Girodet’s road to the Prix de Rome continued to be not without challenges, although eventually he would triumph. The following year he was again a finalist in the concours: the chosen subject in 1787 the bloody Old Testament tale of Nebuchadnezzar having the children of Zedekiah killed before their father’s eyes. Girodet was almost immediately embroiled in a scandal when it was discovered that he had received advice from David and smuggled drawings made elsewhere into his cell. Students complained, David’s reputation was compromised, and Girodet withdrew from the competition, accusing Fabre, another entrant, of betraying him. Humiliated, Girodet challenged Fabre to a duel – his ailing mother made him withdraw the threat – and Fabre went on to win the grand prize. Girodet took back his painting (now in the Musée Tessé, Le Mans; fig. 3), finishing it in David’s studio, likely guided by the master’s advice. In 1788, he competed for a third time with the violent Roman history subject, The Death of Tatius (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Angers; fig. 4), receiving second prize to Etienne Barthélemy Garnier’s first. Finally, in 1789, he took the Grand Prix with the Biblical subject, Joseph Recognized by His Brothers (Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris; fig. 5), a masterly exercise in fluidly choreographed design and uninhibited emotional expression.
Although the origins of Coriolanus Taking Leave of His Family are incontestably established, its subsequent history has yet to be documented, with nothing known of its whereabouts until the canvas reappeared in a private collection in France last year. No drawings or sketches for it have yet been identified, but an old label (fig. 6) affixed to the reverse of the original stretcher, written in an 18th-century hand, clearly identifies its author and subject: 'Les adieux de Coriolan à sa famille. Peint par Girodet en 1786. – Concours pour le grand prix qui ne fut donné à aucun des concurrents.' (‘The farewell of Coriolanus to his family. Painted by Girodet in 1786. Competition for the grand prix which was not given to any of the competitors.’).
Our thanks to Sylvain Bellenger for endorsing the attribution on the basis of photographs.