1823 New Orleans - 1860 Paris
Canvas, 117 x 100 cm
Born in 1823 in New Orleans, Léopold Burthe grew up in a wealthy family of farmers. In the 1840’s he crossed the Atlantic, together with his sister, planning to settle in Paris. The young Burthe showed an exceptional talent for painting and began to study the classics. Having completed his studies, Burthe decided to pursue a career as an artist. At the age of 17 he entered the studio of Amaury-Duval, a student of Ingres. Three years later in 1844, he presented his first painting, Bethsabée, at the Salon. Thereafter he regularly participated and presented several paintings that were well received by critics. Among them was this one.
Presented at the Salon of 1852, Angélique is the illustration of the Song "Roland and the Dragon" from the Tuscan poem Orlando Furioso composed by Ludovico Ariosto in 1532. The beautiful Angelica has been chained to a rock and is the prey of a dragon whose imminent attack is evident by the tumultuous waves. The knight Roland appears dressed in armour like a Deus Ex Machina on the back of a hippogryph. Being in love with the young princess held captive, he flies to her rescue.
By choosing this theme painted by Ingres in 1819, Burthe explicitly makes reference to the painting of the master (Fig. 1) and under the biased instruction of his own master, Amaury- Duval, he asserts himself as a follower of Ingres. Without doubt, the painting is a highlight in Burthe’s career. Whilst the drawing of the body is reminiscent of Ingres’ painting of the bathing Valpinçon (Paris, Louvre Museum), the twisted movement reminds us of the naked women in Désolation des Océanides (Fig. 2) presented by Henri Lehmann (1814-1882), a student of Ingres, at the Salon of 1850.
Drawing from the dramatic tension of the poem, Léopold Burthe includes a psychological dimension absent in Ingres work. The painter shows the imminent arrival of Roger whose silhouette stands out against the calm sun setting in the horizon. This background marks a contrast to the lightness of Angelica’s body, almost beaten by the unreal light, from which she violently turns away. Leopold Burthe leaves the iconographic tradition proposing an alternative to the transgression already carried out by Ingres.
Whilst in 1819, the latter opted for a setting of the scene in the dark of night; Burthe chose the rescuing dawn or alternatively, the threatening dusk. Through this duality, the painter makes the tension of the poem tangible. While Ingres’ lascivious Angélique is rescued by her liberator without expressing resistance, Burthe’s captive heroine tries to escape both the threat of the creature as well as the attack of the armed knight. Naked and fragile she seems to try to resist the charm of the brave conqueror.
As an heir of the studio of Ingres, Burthe distances himself both from the iconographic as well as the plastic presentation of his master thereby perfectly illustrating the “freed Ingrisme” as defined by Bruno Foucart. The cold and acidulous palette is characteristic of the painter, the smooth and opaline complexion of the feminine body is in contrast to the shining red fabric. Her position is free from the sculptural hieratism of the figures of Hercules at the feet of Omphale (Fig. 3) whilst expressing a certain degree of softness already initiated in the Young Woman at the Fountain (Fig. 4). With Ophélia (Fig. 5) and Angélique, shown at the Salon of 1852, Burthe reaches a climax where the bodies reflect the whole psychology of the characters. In the rocky setting with its stylised form, he manages to seize the complexity and fragility of the soul of the tortured Angelica. Through this ambiguous form of depicting elusive spirituality, he joins the Nazarenes alongside Edmond Labrador and announces the mission of symbolist painters.
However this supranatural dimension was not understood by his contemporaries who only saw the artificial aspect of the composition. In a drawing published by Jean and Geneviève Lacambre (Fig. 6), the cartoonist Bertall emphasizes the theatrical character of Burthe’s painting. Roland riding the hippogryph hanging in the air on a thread is characterised as a wooden marionette.
To the contrary, the engraving of Léon Brunel-Rocque (Fig. 7) stays true to the painting. The engraver follows Burthe’s soft line as well as the voluptuous flesh of the female body, which contrasts the hostility of the pointed angles of the rocks. This work is an important piece in the career of the artist and until today is the only known reproduction of the Burthe’s painting.
In spite of Burthe’s short life span of thirty-seven years, his work is of remarkable quality as is evidenced by the rediscovered painting. Only about fifteen have been identified as of yet, of which the majority are held within the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Poitiers.
Having died unmarried and without heirs, Léopold Burthe passed his entire estate to his sister, the Marquise Foucher-de-Circé. After her death the paintings were transferred to the Museum of Poitiers, linked to the family of her husband, Louis-Frédéric Foucher-de-Circé. Four paintings1 were bequeathed to the museum of the city in 1878 : Hercules and Omphale, Young Woman at the Fountain, Ophelia and Saint Sebastian. Burthe’s sister mentions in her will that, “My brother Burthe’s Angélique, shall belong to my nephew Paul Louis Burthe [1848-1929] .“
Perhaps being a secret portrait of his sister, this well researched Angelica marks a highlight in the career of Léopold Burthe. In spite of joining the tradition of Ingres, the painter reinterprets the beautiful princess completely, by making both the psychological as well as the physical torture endured by her visible. Misunderstood by Léopold Burthe’s contemporaries, she announces the spiritual precepts of the symbolist artists to whom he becomes a model.
1 The municipal council accepts the legacy from the session of October 17th 1881 : « Thereafter he (the maire, Léopold Thézard) announces that the museum of Poitiers has received from M. Burthe of Paris, 6 oil paintings, bequeathed by Mme la Marquise de Circé, his aunt ». Register of deliberations of Poitiers, année 1881, p. 201.
Fig. 1 Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) , Roland rescuing Angelica, 1819 Oil on canvas, Louvre Museum
Fig. 2 Henri Lehmann (1814-1882) Desolation of the Oceanides (detail) Oil on canvas, Salon 1850, Gap, muséum départmental
Fig. 3 Leopold Burthe, Hercules at the feet of Omphale, 1845, Oil on canvas Museum of the city of Poitiers Museum
Fig. 4 Leopold Burthe Young Woman at the Fountain, 1849, Oil on canvas
Fig. 5 Leopold Burthe, Ophelia, 1852, Oil on canvas, Museum of the city of Poitiers
Fig. 6 „Bertall“, Salon of 1852, Engraving published by Jean et Geneviève Lacambre 1819
Oil on canvas H. 147 ; L. 190 cm Louvre Museum
Fig. 7 Léon Brunel-Rocque Angélique, Salon of 1852, Lithography, Paris, National Library, Stamp Cabinet 1819, Oil on canvas H. 147 ; L. 190 cm Louvre Museum