Work Two men carrying a cross
Department of Prints and Drawings: 17th century
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Deux hommes érigeant la croix de la Crucifixion
Prints and Drawings
When he had just finished the Hall of Mirrors and was about to begin the last phase of the substantial Versailles decoration with the ceilings of the War Room and the Peace Room, Charles Lebrun undertook the Life of Christ cycle: the artist's last great works. During a period of disfavor in which he saw a drying up of royal commissions, Lebrun demonstrates, in these drawings and paintings, a deeply moving simplicity and sincerity.
Preparing the cross
A man, shown with his back to the viewer, bears on his shoulders a cross which he pulls with great effort. He is assisted by another, bearded man, shown in three-quarter profile.
This study is a preparatory drawing for two figures, which appear in Lebrun's The Elevation of the Cross, found today in the city of Troyes (Musée des beaux-arts). In the painting, these two men lower the cross into a hole dug for this purpose. Although the placement of the figures in the drawing is very similar to that of the painting, there are variations, notably in the position of the legs and the angle of the arm of the man facing the viewer.
A defiant work
The paintings in the Life of Christ cycle, as well as the drawings connected with it, were undertaken by Charles Lebrun in 1685 in response to vicious attacks against him. For years he had been at odds with the painter Pierre Mignard, who was envious of Lebrun's success and the privilege he enjoyed from the king. Mignard took advantage of the death of Colbert, Lebrun's chief protector, by launching a conspiracy against the king's premier peintre. With the strong support of the Marquis de Louvois, Colbert's successor, he tried to replace Lebrun as director of the Academy and the Gobelins manufactory - something he would not accomplish until the artist's death in 1690. Mignard also tried to deprive Lebrun of his position as premier peintre to the king, claiming that the artist was no longer capable of creating a "painting". The king, whose confidence was unshaken, commissioned Lebrun to undertake a work that would be a riposte to Mignard's Bearing of the Cross (extolled by Guillet de Saint-Georges in his Mémoires as "the finest painting ever seen") - and "shut the mouths of the conspirators." The entire court awaited the outcome of the artists' rivalry. The painting was presented to the king on June 27, 1685, and Louis XIV, very satisfied with the result, "showed extraordinary joy": the Mignard gang was obliged to applaud.
A new direction
Sixty drawings, among which the one found in the Louvre, can be connected with the Troyes Elevation of the Cross. They are a testimony to the patient and meticulous preparation Lebrun employed in the creation of his paintings. These works, however, are more meditative than innovative; but isn't that to be expected from a man of advanced years who had devoted his career to enormous royal projects? Put to the test by near-disgrace, he opted for an intimate, emotionally charged pictorial vocabulary. He invested his figures with a deep psychological truth by breaking with the mere appearance of emotional expressions, such as they had been codified in his lectures at the Academy. This change is noticeable in the style adopted for the drawings of this later period, and above all, in the pathos of these two well-muscled male figures who drive into the earth the cross of Christ's sacrifice.
BibliographyBeauvais Lydia, Musée du Louvre. Département des Arts graphiques. Inventaire général des dessins, École française. Charles Le Brun 1619-1690, avec la contribution de Madeleine Pinault Sørensen, pour les dessins illustrant les conférences de l'Académie, et la collaboration de Véronique Goarin et Catherine Scheck, t. I, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2000, notice 1383.Montagu Jennifer, Thuillier Jacques (sous la dir. de), Charles Le Brun 1619-1690, peintre et dessinateur, cat. exp. Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, juillet-octobre 1963, Paris, ministère des Affaires culturelles, 1963, notice 46.
Charles LEBRUN (Paris, 1619-Paris, 1690)
Two men carrying a cross
Red chalk on black lead sketch with white chalk highlights on buff paper
H. 44.7 cm; W. 29.5 cm
Lebrun atelier; entered the Royal Collection in 1690
Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.
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