The first 17th century mythological painting to enter the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales has acquired an important 17th century painting Mars and the Vestal Virgin by Jacques Blanchard, who was one of the most important Parisian painters of his time.
This painting is a work of Blanchard’s full maturity and is of exceptional quality. This is in part due to the unusually fine state of preservation of the painting. The pigments are unusually fresh and unfaded for a 17th century painting.
Born in Paris in 1600 Jacques Blanchard made a trip to Italy and in Rome (1624-26) he would have encountered the art of Caravaggio. On his way back he spent some time in Venice (c.1626-28) where he was particularly affected by the sensuous art of such painters as Titian and Veronese. After a brief spell working in Turin at the court of the Duke of Savoy (c.1628) he returned to France and set himself up in Paris in 1629. Blanchard died young in 1638 and his Parisian career lasted less than a decade.
Blanchard’s painting is memorable for its sensousness. He was known as a painter of mythological and allegorical subjects, many of these painted on commission as part of decorative schemes in the houses of a newly wealthy administrative class of France. It is this which earned him among his contemporaries the nickname of the French Titan and which places him in a pivotal position in the development of French art between the sensual court art of Fontainebleau in the 16th-century and the eroticism of Boucher in the 18th century.
This painting has been called Cymon and Iphigenia but this title proved to be incorrect as Cymon was a shepherd and the male figure in the picture is dressed as a Roman soldier. Recent research has revealed the true subject which is a key episode in the story of the founding of Rome. The Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia lay down to sleep next to a stream in a wood, loosened her clothes and ‘opened her bosom to catch the breeze’. The God Mars encountering her in this state was overcome with lust and raped her. This encounter resulted in the birth of the twins Romulus and Remus, who founded the city of Rome.
The most important French artists of the 17th century, Claude and Poussin, worked almost entirely in Rome. In France, the artistic capital was Paris. Blanchard belongs to a group of artists active at the same period whose reputations have been re-established in recent years.
Recognition of Blanchard’s status is reflected in the presence of his works in the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as numerous other French and American museum collections.
Also as a mythological painting, the work makes a highly important contribution: it is the only 17th century example in a collection which is otherwise composed almost entirely of religious paintings, portraits and landscapes.
Blanchard’s Mars and the Vestal Virgin ‘replaces’ the Van Mieris painting which was stolen from the Gallery in 2007. The $2 million painting was purchased with insurance funds and a substantial contribution from the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.