Monday, September 6, 2010

A Vision of Truth

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Joan of Arc, 1879

Sometimes a painting can stop you cold and hold you like a witch's spell.

That's what this one did to me as a teenager meandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I was there to see 20th century modernism, but some of the historical paintings called to me as well, planting seeds unknown that would root and flower decades later. I'm analyzing the painting in today's post at my wife Anna's request.

It's Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, a nineteenth-century French painter who, if not for this work, would be unknown in our country at this moment in time. It's big - nine feet by eight feet, so it makes a major impact when you view it in person. This is neither a landscape nor a portrait; it's a "history painting" that the French Academy would have approved for the annual salon (meaning the painting would actually be seen by the public).

It's the look on the figure's face that stops us in our tracks.


Those eyes are intense! Her face betrays little identifiable emotion, yet she gazes with a fiery concentration at ..... what? Nothing in the painting, that's for sure. She's positioned way over to the right and looking outside the frame, over our heads. Her body language (the slack right arm, relaxed shoulders, and mild counterpoise in her motionless torso) betrays a passivity and rootedness that contradicts the intensity. With a gaze like that, shouldn't she be straining toward what she sees? Until I became more familiar with the legend of Joan of Arc, the intensely religious "Maid of Orleans," it never occurred to me that she might be listening to something.

This is Joan experiencing the revelation of her destiny. She told her father that she saw visions and heard voices telling her to fight for France against the invading English. In one vision, she saw three saints, St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret, who told her she was appointed by heaven to aid Prince Charles VII of France, who'd actually wear the crown as the result of her rallying the French troops and spooking the English. The ungrateful King would later refuse her pleas to return home. Finally Joan was captured and sold as a prisoner of war by the Duke of Burgundy to the English, who burned her at the stake. It took another ten years for Charles to publicly recognize her service and declare her "a martyr to her religion, her country, and her king."

It's only after our eyes begin to wander this painting's densely patterned background that we see amid the tangle of fruit trees and garden vegetation the semi-transparent figures of the three saints, emerging half-invisible against the wall of the rude peasant hut. To see this, have a look at a high res image here. For a while, I thought the divine vision was appearing to Joan off-camera, and that the figures hovering in the foliage represented her own vision of the stages of her destiny - dressed in armor and later made an angel and a saint. But a closer look finds all three of the divine personages in attendance, the third concealed in the trailing folds of Saint Catherine's iridescent robe.

For Joan's figure, clothing, and face, Lepage drew numerous preparatory studies of the milkmaids and country workers' daughters from Joan's rural hometown region. The accuracy with which the artist captured real physical traits generated by that particular gene pool did not go unnoticed by critics. But it's the look on her face - her great and melancholy seeing of the whole and sacred force and import of her thankless place in history - that makes it unforgettable. The painting perfectly balances the human with the other-worldy divine.

"Nothing in painting has ever moved me like the Jeanne d'Arc of Bastien-Lepage. . .there is something indescribably mysterious and marvelous about it. There you have a sentiment which the artist has thoroughly understood, the perfect and intense expression of a great inspiration, -something great and human, inspired and divine at the same moment, in fact what it actually was, and what no one before him had ever understood. Only think of all the Jeanne d'Arcs that have been painted before! Good Heavens! why they are as common as Ophelias and Gretchens! But in this incomparable artist you find what is only to be found in the sacred art of Italy, in the days when men believed in what they painted." - Marie Bashkirtseff

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