The rediscovery in 2014 of two important religious paintings by Adrian Dassier has enabled the continuation of the work undertaken on this still little known painter by Gilles Chomer in the 1980s–1990s. The Michel Descours gallery revealed the existence of two works commissioned from the artist by the Benedictine convent of La Déserte in Lyon: a Saint Benedict Drawing up the Rule and a Saint Scholastica with a Benedictine Nun. Both were parts of a triptych of which the location of the central element, a large Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes still remains unknown. Now a Virgin and Child, signed and dated 1664, can be added to the still limited Dassier corpus. The date immediately raises the issue of the artist's chronology and its extensive grey areas. Linked to Northern Europe by his training (he long signed himself "gallo-belga") and by his wife, daughter of an Antwerp merchant, Dassier showed a marked fondness for Italian Classicism – notably Raphael, the Cavaliere d'Arpino and Domenichino – while remaining clearly inspired by his elders Poussin and Philippe de Champaigne. But while he is known to have been a recognised "master craftsman" in Lyon in 1651, there is no firm evidence, these stylistic influences aside, that he ever went to Italy.
In 1665 there were about ninety churches in Lyon, some of them dating from the previous decade and still awaiting their definitive decors. Apart from his work for the Abbaye de la Déserte, we know of at least two commissions accorded to Dassier by religious establishments: the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites signed a contract with him in 1666 for an altar painting for its Chapel of the Three Marys. A very elaborate preliminary drawing for this now lost painting, held by the Metropolitan Museum in New York (see supra ill. 1, p. 16), is an example of a composition setting a group in a landscape, with the interplay of folds, pyramidal construction and architectural fountain indicating perfect mastery of the classical vocabulary. Some years later Dassier created a cycle of works on the life of the Virgin for the church of Saint Nizier, of which only The Visitation is known today. As a physical type the Virgin bears a significant resemblance to the one in our picture: long neck, long straight nose, full round face, arched eyebrows, hair parted in the middle, head covered with a veil. The interplay of hands, arms and gazes is very much a feature of these works, as it is of ours and sets up the same cruciform lines of force. One senses a certain formalism, a figural archetype reminiscent of Raphael's multiple variations on the Madonna and Child theme. We should remember that one of the few Dassiers in a museum, Le Songe de Jacob (Jacob's Dream), is a direct quotation from Raphael's painting on the vaulted ceiling of the Room of Heliodorus in the Vatican, dating from around 1511–1514. Dassier could have known the work from an engraving, but it is highly likely that his Jacob resulted from a trip to Italy not long before, probably during the 1660s. Which leads us to think that our Virgin and Child might have been painted during this same trip.
While Dassier was also indebted to Poussin, as indicated by his Achilles among the Daughters of Lycomedes (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon) of 1669 – a copy of the Poussin now in the museum in Boston – our Vierge à l’Enfant moves away from this influence towards a more sculptural classicism, notably reminiscent of the idea of antiquity derived by contemporary Flemish sculptors from the model provided for them by their compatriot François Duquesnoy. The side lighting and tight framing give the volumes a monumental character, but without rendering the image cold: the facial expression, use of colour and the presence of the landscape combine to make this a sensitive portrayal of maternal love. The vividness of the blue, red and white fabrics sets off the skin tones while the fading light falling on the landscape in the background helps give it a tinge of melancholy. The gentleness of the Virgin's face accords with her delicate gesture as she squeezes the infant's left foot; this enveloping, protective figure is calming her child's premonitory fears. This is unquestionably the work of an accomplished painter whose skilful play with his influences results in a potent synthesis. Given the authority with which Dassier's recently discovered works are asserting their presence, we can only hope that his corpus will continue to expand and thus bring to light a major Lyon painter.
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