Work The Death of Timophanes
Department of Prints and Drawings: 18th century
La Mort de Timophane
RMN-Grand Palais - Photo M. Urtado
Prints and Drawings
The Death of Timophanes, a theme explored by Plutarch, was taken up by Marie-Joseph Chénier (1764-1811), whose tragedy, published in 1795, contributed to the vogue for the subject. Antoine-Jean Gros executed this drawing in Milan in 1798, along with a series of studies which show that it was a major project, no doubt intended for a painting.
Plutarch in vogue
Gros's drawing The Death of Timophanes is not an isolated example of this theme, which was explored by Plutarch and revived by André Chénier. Charles Meynier (1768-1832) had already used it in Rome in 1791, Evariste Fragonard (1780-1850) had presented a version of it in the Salon of 1793, and Charles Lafond (1774-1835) in that of 1796. Gros drew his interpretation in Milan, early in 1798. He was staying at the Palazzo Sorbelloni and apparently made several sketches there which he brought back to France. A series of studies (Déleste collection, Musée de Besançon) shows that it was a major project, perhaps intended for a painting.
A bold composition
The image is surprisingly bold: Gros was ready to use any devices to create dramatic effect. The massive wall and the murky light change the scene of the crime into a prison cell. But the boldest element in the decor is the central motif: a square pillar supporting two brick arches which recalls the space created by David for the The Oath of the Horatii. This astonishing composition, which places an architectural element in the foreground as if it were the main character, aims for a threefold effect. Firstly, a theatrical effect - by framing the image, it converts it into a stage and gives the tragedy its grandeur. Secondly, a distancing effect - the stage device prevents the spectator from identifying naively with the scene, recalling that it is also an historical episode. Thirdly, an antithetical effect - the pillar divides the stage into two almost equal parts, duly separated by a curtain.
Democracy and Revolution
On the left, the murder, a political deed. On the right, the act of mourning, a civic deed. On the left, the world of tyranny: Aeschylus and Satyrus (or Orthagoras since, according to Plutarch, his identity is uncertain) assassinate Timophanes on the orders of Timoleon. On the right, the world of democracy, with its emblem, the statue. It is a warlike Athena on a pedestal bearing the Greek name of Corinth. Gros chose this goddess instead of Corith's tutelary gods, Apollo and Aphrodite; by invoking the symbol of Athens, the city of democracy par excellence, he defines this area as democratic. On the base of the statue is a Phrygian cap on a stake to underline the French Revolution's Greek ancestry and to show Gros's Republican beliefs. Timoleon's attitude reflects the conflict between the public sphere (law) and the private sphere (feelings). On the one hand, he seems to be bowing before the goddess; on the other, he is covering his head and shielding his ears from the noise of the assassination. This gesture has a specific source: The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Cathedral of S. Giovanni, Valletta, Malta) by Caravaggio (1571-1610). The reference is heretical in neo-classical theory. Winckelmann regarded Caravaggio as the pernicious initiator of realist art. But Timoleon's grief also comes from the theater: in Chénier's tragedy, the hero gives the signal for the murder while "covering his face with his cloak".
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Antoine-Jean GROS (Paris, 1771 -1835)
The Death of Timophanes
Pen and black wash, white highlights
H. 44.4 cm; W. 57.6 cm
Bequest of Baroness Gros (née Dufresne), the artist's widow, 1842
Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.
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