Before the photography – French intimate painting at the beginning of 1800s

By on December 22, 2017
Anna Danielsson/Nationalmuseum

The National Museum has acquired three paintings from the early 1800s France, made by Étienne Bouhot and Charles Marie Bouton. Together they reflect the times fascination of city views and different forms of space. These pictures of everyday are completely unsentimental. They also work as a viewing cabinet with openings to reality. Perspective and light are important qualities for creating a sense of illusion.

Artists have been fascinated by different ways of creating spatial illusionism since the Renaissance and the design of the central perspective. In the latter part of 1700s, tourism created a market for city views, for example from Paris. Several of the artists had been educated as perspective painters in the theater. Some of them came to develop panorama, a space for audience in the middle and a painted image divided into different scenes that ran around the surrounding walls. The pictures usually showed city views from high vantage points or contemporary dramatic events such as outbreak of fire and war.

Leading panoramic painter in Paris after 1800 was Pierre Prévost (1764-1823). Among his students were two artists, whose works National Museum recently bought – Étienne Bouhot (1780-1862) and Charles-Marie Bouton (1781-1853). Both were up carried names in their contemporaries, but today they undeserved ended up in oblivion. From the 1808 Saloon, Bouhot put out works, mainly city views from Paris. These show a new look for the city. Remaining are the pictures of paradise buildings, but from an unusual angle or with an unexpected perspective. Port vault was often used to stage well-known monuments. There is also space for the little world, back yards with wagon house and nooks. It is this sense of everyday life that Bouhot has captured in its image of an unknown Paris street. The rendering of details is meticulous as well as light and shadow games. The illusory effect and high attendance are reinforced by the characters. The people contribute to the depths, but are also part of a social context. They act at different levels like actors on a stage.

Interior of the church of Saint Thibault in Burgundy
Étienne Bouhot became very popular with contemporary collectors of the time such as the Duke of Orleans, the future King Louis Philippe I. This had been nagging to two paintings by Bouhot, and by the grateful artist, the Duke had also received the drawn sketch of the National Museum’s recently acquired painting, performed in 1823 . This was the same year that Bouhot lost his son, which meant that the artist eventually returned to his hometown Burgundy and the town of Semur-en-Auxois. Nearby is the small community of Saint-Thibault with its old Gothic parish church. It was originally thought to have a cathedral’s proportions, but of this only became a torso. The church received early status of a national historical monument and was later restored by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. On Bouhot’s painting, which the National Museum recently acquired, we see the decay before the style restoration. The interior is not considered to be a completely correct reproduction of the historical building and testifies to the ghost of the time. It is also a slightly absurd report of the state of affairs after the destruction of the French Revolution. The vault with outer roof is about to collapse and the priest still stands quiet and talks with his parishioners. The blue sky as well as the light filterd through the broken window contributes to the suggestive character of the image.

Play with light and space
Even in Charles-Marie Bouton The first supper in the crypt of the church of St Roch in Paris occurs with light and space, but of more complex nature. In the church’s middle center in the left half of the hall there is a trade fair with confirmation. In the neighboring smaller rooms, parishioners devote themselves to individual devotion while Louis Pierre Deseine’s sculpture group in the foundation reproduces the burial of Christ. These different spatial relationships and different degrees of reality are achieved through a suggestive light treatment, which in turn is the result of over light from different shaped windows. There is not only one perspective but several, which together give a secretive character to the church room. Not surprisingly, therefore, Charles-Marie Bouton, together with Louis Daguerre inventor of dioramat, was a development of panorama, but with the addition of light to create illusion of motion.

The three paintings make it possible for the National Museum to present a phenomenon in the visual arts that had a huge impact on the continued development of the entire visual culture with the invention of the photograph as a starting shot.

The acquisitions have been made possible through a generous contribution from Hedda and N.D. Qvists memorial fund. Nationalmuseum has no government funds to acquire artisan art and art without the collections enriched by gifts and private foundation and funds.

Helena Olofsson, Culture & Music | Stockholm