The Triumph of Art
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(With thanks to the Chateau de Sceaux for funding the restoration of the painting and The Art Society Southport for funding a new picture frame)

This exhibition celebrates the restoration of a painting that was given to The Atkinson in the late 19th century. It has not been exhibited in well over a century because of its poor condition.

In ‘The Triumph of Art’ classical figures representing the visual arts pay homage to Jean Baptiste Colbert, a major patron of the arts and a powerful minister who helped Louis XIV rule over France in the 1600s.

The exhibition also features highlights from The Atkinson’s collection, reflecting the art forms portrayed in ‘The Triumph of Art’, including portraiture, sculpture, music and painting.


The artist

Nicolas-Pierre Loir (1624 – 1679), was a French painter and engraver.  He travelled to Italy in the 1640s where he studied the work of fellow French artist Nicolas Poussin.  His paintings have often been mistakenly attributed to Poussin.

Nicolas Pierre Loir ‘Allegory of the Foundation of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture’ (1663), oil on canvas, Château de Versailles

Loir benefitted from the support given to French artists by Louis XIV and by his minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert. In 1663 Loir entered the recently formed Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture thanks to the support of the King. One of Loir’s best-known paintings is an allegory of the foundation of the Académie Royale. Now in the Palace of Versailles, it features a portrait of Louis XIV and is similar in style to ‘The Triumph of Art’.

As well as painting for the King and the aristocracy, Loir painted numerous altarpieces and religious paintings. He also designed tapestries at the Gobelins factory in Paris, which was bought and supervised by Colbert. Loir’s work can be found in many of the world’s major galleries from the Louvre to the Hermitage. However, ‘The Triumph of Art’ is the only major work by Loir in a British collection.


The patron

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) came from a family of merchant bankers. Despite not belonging to the nobility, by the mid-1660s he became the most powerful of Louis XIV’s ministers. In the 19th century the novelist Alexandre Dumas portrayed him as a ruthless, cold-blooded politician but also as a visionary and patriot. \he was known as ‘Le Nord’ because of his chilly demeanour.

Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, by Philippe de Champaigne (1655) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

After initially managing the finances of Cardinal Mazarin, Colbert was recommended  to Louis XIV as an astute accountant. He rapidly took over the ministries for commerce, finance, the colonies and the navy as well as palace affairs. He also developed a sophisticated archival system that became the hub of the government’s totalitarian administration.

Colbert met with Louis XIV almost daily and was so successful in reforming the tax system that the King was able to cement his absolute power over the state. Louis was able to fund the enormously costly Palace of Versailles, as well as embarking on several ill-judged military campaigns.

Colbert supported the development of French culture as a form of propaganda, embedding the image of the Sun King as the source of absolute power. Colbert personally founded the academies of architecture, opera and science. He supervised the first exhibition of living painters in France and acquired several hundred artworks for the Louvre, which at that time was a royal palace.


The history of the painting

The earliest written mention of ‘The Triumph of Art’ appears to be an inventory dating to 1795, during the early years of the French Revolution. The Académie Royale had been suspended in 1793 by the provisional revolutionary government and the  Académie’s collection of paintings was dispersed. Two paintings by Loir feature in the inventory, ‘Minerva and the Arts’ featuring a portrait of Louis XIV, and an ‘Allegory with the portrait of Colbert’. ‘Minerva and the Arts’ entered a French public collection and returned to the Palace of Versailles in the 1990s. The story of how ‘The Allegory with the portrait of Colbert’ made its way from revolutionary Paris to Southport remains a mystery.

By 1889 the painting belonged to Samuel Hardman of 191 Lord Street, Southport. At that time it was attributed to the Flemish artist Willem van Herp and carried the title plaque ‘The Triumph of Art’. In 1890 it was presented to Southport Corporation by Alderman Richard Nicholson J.P., a retired Liverpool shipowner, Liberal politician and a great supporter of The Atkinson Art Gallery.

The art historian Jennifer Montagu published an article in 1998, unravelling the history and symbolism of the painting. She put forward the idea that it was by Nicolas-Pierre Loir and identified the portrait as that of Jean-Baptiste Colbert. In the mid-1980s the painting had been partially restored. It is only now, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Colbert’s birth, that the painting can finally be seen in something close to its original state.


The meaning of ‘The Triumph of Art’

‘The Triumph of Art’ uses the language of classical art to glorify the king. Although the painting features a portrait of Colbert, the central figure in the composition is that of Apollo, representing Louis XIV, the Sun King. The King saw himself as the modern-day embodiment of the Greek god and Colbert ensured that the image of the sun was consistently associated with Louis.

Apollo – The Triumph of Art, Nicolas Pierre Loir (1624–1679). Atkinson Art Gallery Collection.

Apollo was the god of music and he is pictured holding a lyre. Beneath him the arts are portrayed across the canvas. On the left edge, sculpture is represented by the famous ‘Torso Belvedere’ carried by a woman and child. The child is also standing on a fragment of another classical sculpture, the ‘Laocoon’. Leaning next to them is a sketch in white against a black background of a chateau, possibly of Colbert’s own residence, the Chateau de Sceaux.

Three types or genres of painting are represented. A woman dressed in red rests her arm on a still life painting of flowers. Sat next to her, dressed in blue, an artist is copying the portrait of Colbert. On the right two women are holding a painting which shows a youth drawing the outline of his own shadow on a wall. This represents the invention of painting and is used by Loir as a symbol for history painting.

In the centre of the painting a winged child or putto, representing the spirit of culture, wields a flaming torch to beat down a satyr, the embodiment of ignorance.


Conservation

The Triumph of Art, Nicolas Pierre Loir (1624–1679). Atkinson Art Gallery Collection. (Before restoration)

By the 1970s ‘The Triumph of Art’ was in a very poor state. The canvas had deteriorated, the paint surface was flaking in several areas and it had lost its frame.

In 1979 conservators had stabilised the painting to prevent further losses of paint, wax lined it (attached it to a new second canvas) and removed the varnish.

In 2019 a curator at the Chateau de Seaux who was planning an exhibition to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Jean Baptiste Colbert contacted The Atkinson. It was agreed that conservation  of the painting should be completed and the work was undertaken by Harriet Owen Hughes at the National Museums Liverpool Conservation Centre.

The Chateau de Sceaux, the home of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, which lies about 6 miles outside Paris

There were extensive losses of paint and ground which had been partially filled, and numerous smaller losses, giving the canvas a pitted surface texture. The paint was also worn in several passages, probably from harsh cleaning in the past – on the right side only faint incomplete images of a building and horses remain. The canvas has been extended at both sides, presumably by the artist; there is a noticeable colour change between these sections and the main body of the composition. This is confirmed by X-rays taken in 1979 but they do not clarify the many ambiguous passages.

A corrosive liquid had run down the picture surface since the earlier treatment eating into it and causing further paint loss. This had left a gritty deposit containing particles of gold, probably from the frame. Deposits on the surface were removed with deionised water and a scalpel, and the lifting paint was consolidated.

The painting was surface cleaned and cleaning tests were carried  out to determine whether what was thought to be darkened overpaint over some of the figures could be removed safely; but, though darkened, they appear to represent areas in shadow.

A coat of varnish was brushed on and the losses were filled with an inert mixture tinted to match the ground. Retouching of the losses and ambiguous passages was carried out using dry pigments and varnish and the painting was then re-varnished. A new Louis XIV-style frame was provided by frame conservator Germaine Denn.

The Triumph of Art, Nicolas Pierre Loir (1624–1679). Framed painting in studio with conservators.


Exhibition

You can visit the exhibition at The Atkinson 4 July – 9 September 2020.
Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm, free entry

Explore the exhibition in the image galleries and 3D model below.

Portraits

Still Life

Architecture

History Paintings

Sculpture

3D Model

 


Written by Stephen Whittle (Principal Manager, Museum, Gallery & Operations)

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