Lille, France - The first major retrospective for over fifty years of work by the celebrated 17th century Flemish-born French painter Philippe de Champaigne is being staged by the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille, from Friday 27 April to Wednesday 15 August 2007. Some 75 masterpieces have been loaned from European and American museums including the Musée du Louvre, Paris, The National Gallery, London, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, as well as churches and private collections.
Highly esteemed in France where he is considered to be perhaps the greatest portrait painter of the 17th century, Philippe de Champaigne is not so well known elsewhere as his paintings rarely come up for sale. Much of his work was commissioned for French churches and either stayed in situ or ended up in museums after the Revolution, while his portraits tend to remain in the subjects’ families and be passed down from generation to generation.
The title of the exhibition Politics and Spirituality reflects the fact that throughout his life he painted for important royal and political patrons as well as for churches, other religious institutions and for private devotion. He found himself in a most powerful position between these two spheres of influence: Marie de’ Medici and the Carmelite order, between Anne of Austria and the Carthusian monks, Cardinal Richelieu and Cistercian asceticism as practised in the Port-Royal Abbey.
Philippe de Champaigne (1602-74) was born in Brussels where he was a pupil of the eminent landscape painter Jacques Fouquières before settling in Paris in 1621 and becoming a French citizen in 1629. In 1625 he began working with Nicolas Poussin on the decoration of the Luxembourg Palace, built for the Queen Mother, Marie de’ Medici, between 1615 and 1627 under the direction of Nicolas Duchesne, whose daughter he married. His career progressed rapidly under the Queen’s patronage and she eventually appointed him Peintre de la Reine and supplied him with numerous commissions including the decoration of the Carmelite convent in Rue Saint-Jacques in Paris.
Champaigne also worked for Marie de’ Medici’s son King Louis XIII and the powerful Cardinal Richelieu for whom he decorated the cardinal’s palace, the Dome of the Sorbonne church and other buildings. In the early 1640s his style, which already reflected the rationalism of French thought, became even more severe after he came under the influence of the Jansenists, a Catholic sect of great austerity. Some of his finest work was done for the Jansenist convent at Port-Royal where his daughter was a nun and he commemorated her miraculous recovery from paralysis in his most celebrated work, Ex-Voto, 1662, which has been loaned by the Musée du Louvre for this exhibition. The painting depicts his daughter with Mother Superior Cathérine-Agnès Arnauld.
After the death of Louis XIII in 1643 he continued to receive royal patronage from Anne of Austria who became Regent for her four-year-old son Louis XIV. He also received commissions from her chief minister Cardinal Mazarin and other powerful patrons. Because of his prominence he was one of the founding members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1648, where he became a professor in 1653. During the last decade of his career, he chose to paint only portraits of his family and friends and religious themes.
The exhibition follows the artist’s life and development and is divided into five chronological sections: Marie de’ Medici: Flemish roots and inspiration from the Carmel (1628-40); Louis XIII - Richelieu: the construction of a French identity (1630-45); Dialogues with Port-Royal: a pictorial thought (1646-62); Anne of Austria: retreat to Val-de-Grâce and Chartreuse inspiration (1646-60); The Academy: the achievement of spiritual aesthetics (1648-74).
The first section includes a portrait of his wife Charlotte painted in 1628, on loan from the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, an Annunciation of 1631 painted for the chapel of Michel Le Masle in Notre-Dame and The Presentation in the Temple painted in 1629 for the church of the Carmelite convent in rue Saint-Jacques.
The second section features portraits of Cardinal Richelieu including the full-length portrait of 1638 from the Sorbonne in Paris and the National Gallery’s splendid triple portrait of Richelieu. This section will also include The Vow of Louis XIII, 1638, commissioned by the King for the high altar of Notre-Dame, a masterly work of sober majesty and poignant expressiveness, which is now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Caen. Another outstanding work in this section is the Nativity of 1643 which was the central panel of the altarpiece commissioned by Jacques Tuboeuf, one of the Queen’s associates, for his private chapel in the Oratory church in Paris. It now belongs to the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille.
Section three features a portrait of Robert Arnauld d’Andilly, the first of many of people in Jansenist circles, painted in 1667, from the Louvre, and the 1646 Allegory of Human Life, an extraordinary still life depicting a skull on a marble plaque with a tulip in a vase on one side and an hourglass on the other from the Musée Tesse in Le Mans. From the same museum comes The Dream of Elija, 1656, one of Champaigne’s masterpieces from the period, which is one of three surviving compositions illustrating spiritual nourishment that were intended for the refectory of the Benedictine convent in Val-de-Grâce in Paris where he worked for Anne of Austria. This superb work is featured in the fourth section of the exhibition which also includes Christ Healing the Blind, 1660, set in a wonderful landscape outside the walls of Jericho and loaned by the Timken Art Gallery in San Diego.
The final section includes The Presentation in the Temple painted in 1648 for the high altar of the parish church of Saint Honoré, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and The Assumption of the Virgin painted in 1671 for the charterhouse at Durban in the Hautes-Alpes and now in the church of Saint Blaise in Saint Julien en Beauchène.
Philippe de Champaigne: Politics and Spirituality offers a rare opportunity to appreciate the work of one of France’s most influential painters. Easily accessible from London by Eurostar, Lille and the Palais des Beaux-Arts, France’s second most important museum, is an alluring destination for all lovers of France and its art. This great museum has been attracting great crowds after recently re-opening following an extensive and lengthy renovation, which gave it more space and maginificent elegant settings to display its treasures.