Attracted in his youth to the ferment of revolutionary ideas and driven by a rebellious temperament, Hennequin had an early career that can only be described as troubled. After training at the School of Drawing in Lyon under Donatien Nonotte and Eberhard Cogell, in late 1780 he enrolled at the atelier David had just opened in Paris; however, he was expelled the following year in the wake of a theft of paint for which he was denounced by his fellow student Wicar. He spent the years 1784–1789 in Rome, where he was pursued by the Papal police for his Masonic activities, a situation aggravated by his association with the subversive Count Cagliostro. Taking refuge in Lyon, he played an active part in the French Revolution on the Jacobin side, but had to flee the White Terror after the events of 9 Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre. On his return to Paris in 1796 he was condemned to life imprisonment for his part in the attempted insurrection at the Grenelle army camp, the final episode in the "Conspiracy of the Equals" and its intended overthrowing of the Convention, but was released in February 1797. In 1799 he achieved a succès d'estime – more political than critical – at the Salon with his monumental allegory Dix août (Tenth of August), a celebration of the fall of the monarchy financed buy the neo-Jacobin government and winner of a first prize from the French Institute. The painting was destroyed in 1820, but fragments can be found in the museums in Angers, Caen, Le Mans and Rouen. The critics reacted more favourably to his Remorse of Orestes at the Salon in 1800, a sweepingly energetic example of Classical romanticism showing Orestes pursued by the Furies after the murder of Clytemnestra (Paris, Musée du Louvre). However, unable to equal the virtuosity of his contemporaries and despairing of making a place for himself in France, he left for Belgium in 1809 and struggled to live by his art until he moved to Tournai in 1821.
After the Grenelle insurrection affair Hennequin had abandoned political activism to look after his personal interests and make a career for himself via the Salon. The mythological drawings he now undertook point up these concerns and his readiness to meet the tastes of the Directory clientele. Prepared on a number of sheets showing different episodes from the story of the two Trojan War heroes, Paris Leaving Helen to Fight Menelaus, shown at the Salon in 1798 (present location unknown), is the result of his exploration of the gracious genre. Together with Homer Reciting His Poetry (Paris, Musée du Louvre), this is his largest drawn composition from these years and the only truly erotic one. While the artist's fondness for hermetic allegories has discouraged any attempts at identifying its subject, there is little ambiguity here, and the subject can be linked to an image in favour during the Mannerist period: Venus bathing with Mars or Adonis. Primaticcio portrayed Venus and Mars in a lost composition probably intended for the baths at the Château de Fontainebleau, known by a drawing (see supra ill. 1, p. 42) and cited in an engraving by Antonio Fantuzzi: it shows the goddess wearing, as in Hennequin's drawing, a flagrantly anecdotal turban and entering Mars's bath. Venus and Adonis bathing is one of Giulio Romano's subjects in the Cupid and Psyche room in the Palazzo del Te in Mantua (see supra ill. 2, p. 45). As in the latter picture, Hennequin shows numerous cupids preparing the lovers' frolics.
The liberty of this composition is surprising for an artist who has nowhere else shown any interest in licentious subjects. In a whimsically personal interpretation of the fable, he reverses the roles, with Venus dominating from above the enforced passivity of a hero caught in the snakelike coils of a garment. Rarely in the case of this artist has the taste for anatomical schematization – the use of line overly segmenting the naked bodies and sheathing them with muscles – been so vigorously expressed; this reinforces the analogy of his disegno with that of the cinquecento.
Lyon, 1909. Paris, Galerie Didier Aaron, 1993.
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