23 13/16” x 18 1/2“(60.5 x 47 cm) - Framed: 32 13/16” x 27 5/16” (83 cm x 69.3 cm)
Exhibition : Jean- Frédéric Schall - exhibition at the Hôtel Jean Charpentier, 76 Faubourg Saint Honoré in Paris for the benefit of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg from May 2d to May 29th 1929 - number 14
Provenance: Mr. de Montmarqué
Mr. Desparmet- Fitz-Gérald (circa 1930)
Sotheby's New York sale on January 29th 2021
Louis XV period carved giltwood "pastel" frame
This atypical and terrifying painting by Jean-Frédéric Schall depicts the torture of a vestal virgin, condemned to be buried alive for having broken her vows. Dressed in a contemporary manner, our vestal provides a link between the gallant painting of the Ancien Régime and the neo-classicism that was triumphing with David. Her dark eroticism is reminiscent of the Anandrynes, those so-called "vestals" known for their Sapphic love affairs. Probably painted in 1789, this painting heralds the dark hours of the dungeons of the Terror.
1. Jean-Frédéric Schall, the master of the Fêtes galantes of the late 18th century
Jean-Frédéric Schall was born in Strasbourg in 1752 where he received his initial training at the Public Drawing School around 1768. In 1772 he moved to Paris where he was admitted to the Protected Pupils’ School of the Royal Academy. He entered the studio of Francesco Casanova (1727 - 1803) and then worked from 1776 to 1779 in the studio of Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié (1735 - 1784). He benefited at that time from the protection of Georges-Frédéric Meyer (1735 - 1779), another Alsatian painter living in Paris.
Schall became a close friend of Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 - 1806), to whom the authorship of several of his paintings has been attributed, and of Pierre Paul Prud'hon (1756 - 1823). He specialised from 1776 onwards in gallant subjects, which were then often reproduced by engraving. He depicted the parties given in the follies and the "Petites Maisons" by aristocrats and financiers to the actresses, dancers and fashionable women who were their mistresses. He thus became the memoirist of libertinism, calling himself a "painter of stories". Schall painted also many stage portraits of ballerinas at the Opera, or actresses.
Initially in the service of Duke Christian IV of Zweibrücken, he then worked for the Controller of the Navy Auguste-Gabriel Godefroy. He entered the company of the Marquis de Girardin, Madame de Warrens and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose portrait he painted under the title "The Natural Man". Schall also abundantly illustrated the literary works of his time (The Confessions, Paul and Virginia, etc.) and these representations were widely disseminated by the engravings they inspired.
During the Revolution, he tackled more patriotic subjects, exhibiting at the salons of 1793 and 1798, before returning at the end of his life to gallant scenes, when his style became closer to that of Prud'hon.
2. Description of the artwork and historical context
In ancient Rome, vestals were priestesses dedicated to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. They had to cultivate the sacred fire at the temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum and took a 30-year vow of chastity. Any sacrilegious relationship was punished by death: the Vestal was buried alive while her lover was beaten to death by the pontifex maximus.
Our painting shows a young woman dressed in white, leaning against a table, holding a handkerchief. At the height of her despair, she looks away from a brown cloth that can be seen at the end of the table. An antique-inspired oil lamp is the only source of light in the scene, casting a strong glow on our heroine and highlighting her panting chest. While the flame of the lamp evokes the transport of love, the rose-tinted sash suggests the vestal's betrayal, a betrayal that explains the terrifying ordeal she has just been condemned to: live burial.
The largest part of the huge room in which she is seated is plunged into darkness. A few architectural details emerge: a door surmounted by a neo-classical overmantel leading to a second door that opens onto the darkness, two columns on the left and the beams supporting the ceiling. The wall of the room seems to stop halfway up, opening onto a gigantic, ill-defined space, the immensity of which accentuates its terrifying character.
A dark mass on the left suggests a door with a heavy metal wing and a chain attached to it, which one might assume was used to operate the wing from a trapdoor above. To add to the horror, a bloody cloth can be seen on the table - the tunic of the lover who was beaten to death? This cloth acts like a magnet on the body of our unfortunate vestal who nevertheless looks away from this unbearable sight.
This theatrical gesture, her fashionable dress, create a distance between the terror inspired by the torture of our vestal virgin and this refined and affected representation. It introduces a slightly caricatural dimension and brings us back to Schall's favourite world, that of opera and theatre.
It is very interesting to note that on August 19th 1789, Ericie or the Vestale Virgin, a tragedy in three acts by Joseph-Gaspard Dubois-Fontanelle was presented at the Théâtre de la Nation . This play had been printed in 1769 but had not been authorised to be performed in Paris. It was not a great success as there were only two performances on 19th and 24th August 1789. Even if the story is slightly different (Ericie stabs herself before going to her grave), it is tempting to relate the production of our painting to this historical context.
3. Related artworks
It seems to us that the influence of Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Marguerite Gérard is particularly strong in this painting, in which the attitude and clothing of our vestal are reminiscent of those of the young lover in the Stolen Kiss, a painting executed between 1786 and 1788. The very strong similarities between these two young women lead us to believe that our painting was certainly executed shortly after Fragonard's and supports our proposal to date it to 1789.
As Jean-Pierre Cuzin wrote in his complete catalogue of Fragonard's paintings: “from 1750 onwards, a twofold movement underpins the evolution of French painting: the taste for historical subjects inspired by the Antiquity, which was met in the early 1760s by the neo-Greek fashion launched by Vien, and the disgust for the bright, clear colours inherited from Boucher. There was a need for a strong painting in which the forms stand out.” Schall, in this painting, does not hesitate to explore the range of the deepest blacks to bring out the eroticism of this body burning with desire.
With the triumph of the neo-Greek taste, idyllic images of vestals had multiplied. They were generally represented as consecrated virgins dressed in "candid probity and white linen". With the approach of the French Revolution, this theme was completely subverted: the vestal is now represented as a guilty woman led to her torture, as shown (with much more severity than the painting we are presenting here) in Danloux's painting of 1790, and in Jacques Gamelin's painting of 1798.
This representation, in 1789, of an elegant woman imprisoned in a dark dungeon acquires a premonitory dimension if we think of the dark hours of the Terror which will see so many women of the aristocracy (starting with Queen Marie-Antoinette), experience the rigours of imprisonment, an antechamber of the scaffold.
4. From the sacred virgins of Antiquity to the tribades of the Ancien Régime
The catalogue of the 1929 exhibition written by André Girodie, Schall's specialist in the interwar period, describes this painting as follows: "A simulacrum of punishment, in the ancient manner, of the Anandrynes who perjured themselves to their oaths: Sophie Arnould, Agnès and Denise Colombe, the Guimard and many other "vestals" of Madame de Fleury's temple”. This description, which underlines the Sapphic character of this scene, deserves some clarification.
From 1770 onwards, a sect called the Anandrynes is said to have existed in Paris, founded by Thérèse de Fleury (the wife of a public prosecutor) and led by Françoise Raucourt (or Françoise de Raucourt), an actress of the Comédie Française, who was probably born in Paris in 1756. This sect would have been a kind of secret Masonic lodge gathering lesbians, or rather tribades (as the word "lesbian" did not yet exist), recruited within the high society and the world of theatre and opera. Members of this sect took an oath to be the enemies of men and to avoid them. In 1784, Mathieu-François Pidansart de Mairobert published in his British Spy a small libertine novel of about a hundred pages which revealed the occult activities of this group: Miss Sapho’s Confession or the Anandrynes’ Sect.
While it is established that lesbian love affairs came out of clandestinity in this period of sexual liberation, opinions diverge on the reality of the existence of this secret society. For some historians, it may only be a fantasy projection of male desire.
The representations of women as vestals, or accompanied by a dove, "that bird dear to Venus, so ardent in its battles", take on a symbolic meaning under Schall's brush by designating their models as tribades. The Torture of the Vestal Virgin that we present would thus have a hidden meaning, intended to warn the priestesses of Vesta of the punishments that await them if they move away from their Sapphic love affairs.
Our painting is presented in a carved and gilded wooden "pastel frame" from the Louis XV period.
Main bibliographical references :
André Girodie - Un peintre de fêtes galantes - Jean-Frédéric Schall - Strasbourg 1927
André Girodie – Exposition Jean-Frédéric Schall - Hôtel Jean Charpentier 1929
Pierre Rosenberg - Fragonard - RMN 1987
Jean-Pierre Cuzin – Jean-Honoré Fragonard – Vie et œuvre – catalogue complet des peintures – Editions Villo – Paris 1987
Marie-Jo Bonnet Les relations amoureuses entre femmes du XVIe au XXe siècles - Odile Jacob 1995
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