Bordeaux 1782–Paris 1863
Homer Reciting his Poetry
Signed, lower left, Bergeret inv et fecit; and inscribed by the artist on the pedestal at left with a bust of Jupiter, YOVIS
Black chalk, pen and black ink, brown wash, heightened with white on ochre prepared paper
12 ⅛ x 13 ½ inches
309 x 347 mm
As yet unpublished, this highly accomplished and rare drawing depicts a subject that Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret treated several times during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. At the Salon of 1817 he submitted a painting entitled Paysage historique - On y voit Homère récitant ses poésies.¹ A good decade earlier, in circa 1803-04 Bergeret made a lithograph, a technique introduced in France only in 1802 and of which he was one of the earliest adopters, of the same subject as our drawing.²
Although different in composition, both works share a similar figure repertory as well as the pastoral surroundings. In our drawing Homer is shown reciting his poetry, under the aegis of Jove, to an audience of two women, who appear to be singing from a sheet, while a shepherd and his dog calmly look on. The lithograph equally features two women and a shepherd with a dog, in addition to two children, who are absent from our sheet. At approximately the same time, Bergeret is known to have made a pen and ink drawing, now untraced, of the Captured Athenians Reciting the Poetry of Homer and Euripides, a drawing which apparently caught the attention of Dominique-Vivant Denon (1747–1825), then director-general of Napoleon’s museums. Denon subsequently commissioned from Bergeret the drawings for the 425 bronze plates decorating the column erected to celebrate the battle of Austerlitz in what is today’s place Vendôme in Paris. At the time, Bergeret lived and worked in the Couvent des Capucines, an abandoned convent located in that square. Prior to its demolition in 1806, the convent’s cells accommodated numerous young artists, including Bergeret, Ingres, Girodet, and the sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini, who were close friends and ran a type of academy dedicated to the study of Italian Renaissance art.³
Bergeret’s familiarity with the present subject, however, goes back further, more specifically, to his days as a nineteen-year old student in the atelier of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). There he would have seen some of David’s drawings of the subject that he had made in the autumn of 1794 while imprisoned in the Palais de Luxembourg. One of them, in the Louvre, shows Homer Reciting the Iliad to the Greeks within the architectural context of the monumental courtyard of the Luxembourg palace.⁴ Markedly different in his own approach, Bergeret chose a bucolic and opulent rather than a heroic setting for his drawing.
Before studying with David, in circa 1799-1800, Bergeret briefly trained in the studio of François-André Vincent (1746–1816), then professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The crisp and vigorous pen style of our sheet, together with the yellow-ochre preparation of the paper and the ample application of white gouache, is strongly reminiscent of Vincent’s drawing style. Vincent, too, regularly used colored or prepared paper for his drawings. In style, technique, and size, our drawing is particularly close to Bergeret’s drawing of the Nurse Eurycleia Recognizing Ulysses at his Return in the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Bordeaux, the artist’s hometown. The drawing was made for a concours among the students of the Ecole de dessin announced by the city’s academy in 1805.⁵ Due to an illness of its director, Pierre Lacour, who was the first teacher of Bergeret before his move to Paris in 1799, the prizes were only awarded in 1807. As Olivier Le Bihan points out in his extensive analysis of the Bordeaux competition, after failing to win de Prix de Rome in 1799, 1802 and 1803, Bergeret focused on his drawings, which reveal great technical dexterity and inventiveness, as can be seen in the present sheet, as well as in his lithographs. Our drawing was made during those opening years of the nineteenth century, and most likely at about the time of the Bordeaux competition of 1805-07. In 1806, following the prestigious commission for the Place Vendôme relief designs, Bergeret submitted for the first time a painting to the Salon, Pope Leo X and his Entourage Honoring Raphael after His Death (Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum). The picture proved a tremendous success and was purchased by Napoleon for his wife Josephine, who installed it in the music room of her château at Malmaison. This was arguably the moment of Bergeret’s greatest success which launched him as the new prodigy of the Parisian art world.
History painter, pioneer lithographer, and designer, Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret began his studies under Pierre Lacour (1745-1814) at Bordeaux before entering the Paris studios of François-André Vincent (1746-1816) and Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), where he met the painters François-Marius Granet (1775-1849) and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). In 1801 he designed porcelain at the Manufacture de Sèvres. He played an essential role in the early use of lithography through his prints after Poussin and, particularly, Raphael’s Mercury (1804) from the Villa Farnesina in Rome. His 1805 color lithograph caricature of Parisian life, Le suprême bon ton actuel, was a great success. Bergeret was also asked to decorate the Palais du Corps Législatif (today the Palais Bourbon). During the Empire, Bergeret designed Napoleonic medals en camaïeufor the Manufacture of Sèvres. Over a period of nearly fifty years, from 1806 to 1853, Bergeret exhibited paintings of troubadour, classical, and oriental subjects at the Paris Salons, including Charles V Picking up Titian’s Brush (1808, Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts); Anne Boleyn Condemned to Death (1814, Paris, Musée du Louvre) and the Death of Henry IV (1824, Pau, Musée National du Château).
Explications des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture et gravure …, Paris, 1817, p. 5. An unsigned painting of this subject but of different composition, from a private collection, has recently been linked to this Salon submission. However, the inscription on the back of this painting, Homère récitant ses poésies sous les portes de C[hios], does not correspond to that in the Salon catalogue; see M. Favreau (et al.), Éloge de Bordeaux: Trésors d’une collection, exhibition catalogue, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, 2009-10, p. 168, cat. no. 110, illustrated.
D. H. Vasseur, The Lithographs of Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, exhibition catalogue, The Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, 1982, p. 7 and cat. no. 18, illustrated. A slightly later print (Vasseur, op. cit., cat no. 20, illustrated) depicts the Death of Homer.
H. Naef, ‘Ingres et son collègue Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret,’ in Bulletin du Musée Ingres, XXXVII, 1975, p. 3.
P. Rosenberg and L.-A. Prat, Jacques-Louis David. Catalogue raisonné des dessins, Milan, 2002, vol. I, p. 160, cat. no. 145, illustrated.
Inv. Bx D 2005.1.14; see O. Le Bihan, “La distribution des prix de l’Ecole gratuite de dessin en 1807. Éloge de Bergeret par Pierre Lacour,” in Bulletin et Mémoires de la Société archéologique de Bordeaux, vol. LXVV, 1984, p. 149, fig. 2.