An early death and a small body of work explain the modest status of Eugène Roger in the history of French painting under the July Monarchy. Moreover, our evaluation of him is hampered by persistent confusion with his contemporary Adolphe Roger (1800–1880), caused mainly by the fact that the latter’s first name is not given in the Salon booklets of the 1830s. Thus, in their account of the Salon of 1833 we find Laviron and Galbaccio critiquing the talent of Eugène when actually discussing a picture by Adolphe (Revolution in Rome, 1793, location unknown). The mix-up continues to this day.
Born in Sens, this pupil of Louis Hersent and, beginning in 1832, of Ingres, seemed set for a brilliant official future – despite, as was often the case, a laborious academic career punctuated by Rome Prize failures. Enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1826, he was awarded a second prize in 1829 and drew attention by taking out the first prizes for torso and tête d’expression in 1832. The supreme distinction came in 1833 with his Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Paris, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts). He showed at the Salon from 1831 until his death: portraits initially, followed by Italian scenes dating from his time at the Villa Medici and history paintings that almost all achieved public success: The Finding of the Body of Charles the Bold was acquired by the City of Nantes in 1837 (Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts) and Saint John Preaching in the Wilderness by the state in 1840 (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Also shown in 1840, The Raising of the Siege of Salerno had been commissioned by Louis-Philippe for the Crusades Room at the Palace of Versailles, where it remains today, in addition to the previously commissioned Charlemagne Crossing the Alps (1838, Palace of Versailles).
The most productive period of Eugène Roger’s brief existence was that of his Italian years (1834–1839). The main source of information on his work is Fossier’s volume of documents relating to Ingres’s directorship of the Villa Medici, which leave us with the impression of a Rome Prize winner not about to sacrifice his chances of success to academic study. The unlimited leave he was granted by the Minister for the Interior in 1836 authorised him to fulfil his Rome obligations in Paris because of “serious impairment of his health”; in fact he used it to produce the big history painting The Finding of the Body of Charles the Bold for the Salon and thus begin his career as an exhibiting artist. His execution of the large painting of Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro instead of the painted sketch required as a fourth-year Villa Medici submission was a sign of the same impatience.
The painting was done between October 1837 and April 1838, in the wake of the copying of a fresco after Titian – another fourth-year requirement – and before the letter in which Dominique Papety describes the finished picture.6 The choice of subject is interesting in that Papety himself painted a Moses Rescued from the Nile of the same format (Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Kunste) and that the following year Gabriel Prieur, Rome Prize for historical landscape, showed a Landscape with Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro (location unknown). Moses was at the time not only the
subject of academic competition in the light of the return of religion to the foreground of public life under the Bourbons, but also a burningly topical figure since the publication in 1928 of Jewish historian Joseph Salvador’s Histoire des institutions de Moïse, which had triggered a furious Judeo-
Christian dispute by asserting the legality of the Sanhedrin’s condemnation of Jesus. The artists who took Moses up were not necessarily echoing this controversy; they were making use of the contemporary presence of a figure belonging not to a dead past, but to the culture of their time, as indicated by the host of studies devoted to him throughout the 1830s. Roger’s Moses did not find unqualified acceptance at the Académie des Beaux-Arts: “The
composition of this picture is quite colourful. The men’s side, with its harmony of line, is very well felt, although Moses’s pose is somewhat theatrical. The women as a group seem to be taking no part in the scene: they are absolutely bereft of any expression and this makes this part of the composition cold. It could be said that the drawing is timid and lacks the character called for by the narrative. The exclusive use of white for the women and for Moses’s cloak renders the work as a whole cold and monotonous. The colours used for the background and the soil of the foreground sections are too similar and detract from the overall effect.”
The dual challenge Roger took up in offering this history painting instead of the expected painted sketch was to meet the academic requirements by demonstrating his overall artistic excellence, while at the same time
attracting the attention of visitors to the Villa Medici exhibition in Paris with an exoticism that recreated “the look of Araby”, as Papety put it. The energetic male figures are the forceful illustration of the artist’s savoir
faire – this is the “very well felt” men’s side – but for the second part of his programme Roger probably took for his model Horace Vernet’s Arabs in Their Camp Listening to a Story, in which the white garb provides the
necessary local colour. The reserve on the part of the women, which gave the academicians the impression of non-involvement, may reflect the artist’s thinking about the model earlier established by David’s Oath of the Horatii, and its division of the sexes according to their social roles and degrees
of antagonism. What should not be disregarded, though, is the “Nazarene” influence of Hippolyte Flandrin, the painter’s intimate friend and a proponent of the biblically hieratic.
Price : on request