Style Orientalism / Ref.13027
Léon FREDERIC (1856-1940), Parody of the famous painting by Benjamin CONSTANT (1845-1902) « Justinian », 1887
Width: 131'' ⅛ 333cm
Height: 75'' ¼ 191cm
Depth: 1'' ⅝ 4cm
This very big painting made by the Belgian painter Léon Frédéric in 1887 depicts a parody of the orientalist painter Benjamin Constant's famous painting untitled « Justinian », today conserved in the Ringling Museum of Art in Florida.
The original painting exhibiting during the Salon of 1886 in Paris depicts as its title indicates the Estern Roman Emperor, Justinian the Great (492-565) bearing the imperial crown sat on a marble throne and surrounded by his counsellors sat on a bench. On the foreground a seaten man turning his back from the spectator unfols a scroll bearing a Greek text. The very detailed scene takes place in a somptuous eastern decor, wanted the most authentic possible by the artist who also used the Ancient costumes and jewels as an inspiration source. The important dimension of this painting is intentional, by proposing this size to the Salon, the orientalist painter hoped to finally win a gold medal.
Dispict the admirative feedback of the press, the painting was considered as too decorative and did not received a medal. Disapointed, more because the State dit not look to buy it, Benjamin Constant decided to sell it to an American collectionor Godfrey Mannheimer in 1887, who donates it to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art three years later. The painting was exhibited there between 1890 and 1928 before it was given back to the donator family. They sold it to another American collectionor, John Ringling. It was then exhibited in the Ringling Museum of Art in Florida in the beginning of the 1940's, then kept in the storage where it was damaged by the time. It's only in 2019 with the support of the Getty Foundation that the painting was restored and again exhibited in the Museum.
On the same year that Benjamin Constant finds a buyer, a comical exhibition is organized in Brussels in the Musée du Nord : the Exposition universelle burlesque. Very poorly documented, we have find an article in the French newspaper Gil Blas from February the 19th 1887 written by Sicard who says : " I don't have enough room to talk to you, as I would and how it deserves, of the Exposition universelle burlesque that has started in the Musée du Nord. It's zwanze, as they say here. Zwanze is a special word, meaning prank or farce, and this burlesque exhibition is nothing more than a funny salon, a friendly charge, a spiritual and happy parody of the contemporary painting and sculpture. All the style are laugh at, all the proceeds, all the Ecoles, Belgian and French first. There is on the 250 canvas exhibited charges, caricatures, pastiches of Puvis de Chavanne, Benjamin Constant, Henner, Béraud, Redon and many others that I forget, which are model of sometime delicate observation often very mischievous but never mean."
It's during this exhibition that the painter Léon Frédéric exhibits his parody of Justinian. History painter at the beginning of his career, after a formation in Jean-François Portaels (1818-1895) workshop, he's influenced by the Realist painting while keeping pictorial characteristics of his own. Like for instance a taste for silence, scenes where the protagonists seem to be in their own world without caring about what's all around them and composition sense with an original display. His paintings make him one the master of the Belgian symbolist movement and even announce kind of a surrealist themes.
By comparing his other composition and the figures' attitude, it's not strange that Léon Frédéric felt inspired by Benjamin Constant's painting where we can also feel in a way a disregard toward one an other by the protagonists.
In his parody he takes back the same composition and the same number of figures but fading some details such as the richness of the costumes and the wall mosaic. The posture and the attitude of the counsellors stay the same, the parody is played with only the emperor. Two columns far less slender and larger flank the throne on which Justinian appears disproportionate and smaller than the other. Risen on a big pedestal, the armrests also too high for the emperor's body oblige him to keep a saggy posture. This position takes from him his magnificence and authority that he had in the original painting by the position of his arms. The painter's joke thus appears by the reduction of this emperor yet called Justinian the Great.
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