Atelier · January 25, 2008

Friday in the atelier: “Salomé” by Henri Alexandre Georges Regnault

When Henri Alexandre Georges Regnault (1843-1871) died defending France at the young age of 27, we potentially lost an additional 40 years of masterpieces from this fine artist.

One of my favorite painting traditions of the 19th century was that of Orientalism. Artists from Europe traveled through what is now Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, making friends and painting what they found. In a world before television, when even photography was in its infancy, the art of painting in realistic and romanticized styles had come into its own, and only through this medium were Americans and Europeans able to experience the Middle East. This was especially true since many of these Islamic countries had rules that forbade the representation of humans in art.

Some artists, like Jean-Léon Gérôme, (a favorite artist of mine who traveled to the middle east on four different occasions) became a great judge of people, and learned to discern when a subject was willing to be painted. Other artists, Etienne Dinet for example, converted to Islam and settled in the area. On occasion, artists were attacked for their audacity of painting human figures.

Henri Regnault became friends with Aischa Chamma, a Moroccan girl who helped Regnault persuade Muslim women to pose for him

Henri Regnault’s very famous father, Henri Victor Regnault, is familiar to me from my college Physics classes. The elder Regnault was a French Chemist and Physicist who was known for his careful measurement of the thermal properties of gases. Even now, my scientific calculator shows that the Ideal Gas Constant is R= 8.3144 J/(mol * K), where “R” stands for Regnault.

The first painting I’m showing here from the younger Henri Regnault is perhaps his most famous. Called “Salomé”, it was completed in 1870. Regnault explained the evolution of this painting in letters to his father. The painting began as an oil sketch of the head of a peasant woman that Regnault met in Rome. He enlarged the sketch to a bust length study, and then added canvas to three sides of the painting and completed the entire composition, including the knife and basin. It was only after completion of the painting that Regnault named it after the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, the damsel who danced in Mark 6:21-29, leading to the death of John the Baptist by beheading.

With this name, Regnault transforms the image of a beautiful and somewhat saucy woman to that of someone much more menacing. The basin and knife take on a more sinister tone. Her smile is both friendly, and hiding a secret; her eyes penetrate – but under the hood of her hair their purpose is mostly hidden.

Henri-Alexandre-Georges Regnault entered the most famous of the French schools of fine art, the “École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts” located in Paris, where he first studied under Louis Lamothe and later under Alexandre Cabanel. He displayed his works at the Paris Salon from 1863 to 1870, and won the Prix de Rome in 1866 with the painting “Thetis bringing the Arms forged by Vulcan to Achilles”

I’m showing a cropped detail of his painting, “Automedon with the Horses of Achilles”, which is notable for being Regnault’s first major canvas, and for it’s size of over 10 square meters in area. Regnault painted this while a student in Rome. Automedon was Achilles’ chariot driver, and is shown trying to control Achilles’ steeds. These horses were said to know the future, and they fought Automedon because they could see that they would be carrying Achilles to his death, in his final battle.

Although the Prix de Rome scholarship normally required the student to study in Rome Italy, Regnault asked for and was granted permission to study in Spain, and later North Africa. He was, at some point, influenced by the works of Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny. From Granada, Spain, Regnault and his friend Georges Clairin, traveled to and established a house and studio on the North African coast in Tangier, Morocco. They planned to use this home as their primary residence as they explored and studied throughout North Africa.

While in Tangier, as part of his scholarship requirements Regnault sent a large painting, “Execution Without Hearing Under the Moorish Kings”, back to the Roman school. Although I show the entire painting here, it is difficult to see the detail in this size. Click on the painting to see it in better detail. In this painting, Regnault takes special care in presenting the blood of the slain victim. It glitters, gem-like on the floor, and it spurts from the neck as much as any modern slasher film. The callous indifference of the executioner as he wipes his blade is somewhat chilling.

The Prix de Rome bestowed an automatic exemption from military service for the artistic winners of this contest. In spite of his military exemption, when the Franco-Prussian war started in 1870, Regnault rushed home from Tangier to serve as a soldier. He died in Buzenval, on the outskirts of Paris, defending the city in 1871. His father’s laboratory at Sèvres was also destroyed during the fighting.

The elder Henri Victor Regnault never recovered from his losses, and retired in 1872. He died 6 years later at the age of 68.