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Louis Laguerre
1663–1721

A feast of the gods with Venus and Bacchus (a pair)

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Medium
Oil on canvas
Painted c.1720 
 
Size
36 × 48 ⅛ inches · 914 × 1223 mm
Collections
  • With Appleby Brothers, London, June 1957;
  • Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, London, 1961;
  • John and Eileen Harris, acquired from the above, to 2015. 
Exhibitions
  • Twickenham, Marble Hill House, English Baroque Sketches: The Painted Interior in the Age of Thornhill, 1974, no.12; 
  • London, Tate Gallery, Manners and Morals: Hogarth and British Painting, 1700-1760, no.10. 
Literature
  • Jacob Simon and Ellis Hillman, English Baroque Sketches: The Painted Interior in the Age of Thornhill, 1974, cat. no.12; 
  • Elizabeth Einberg (ed.), Manners and Morals: Hogarth and British Painting,1700-1760, exh. cat., London (Tate Gallery), cat. no.10. 

From the Restoration until the rise of Palladianism in the 1720s decorative history painting formed the preeminent artistic discipline in Britain. It was a field dominated by Continental artists including the Italian Antonio Verrio and the Frenchman Louis Laguerre. Laguerre had trained in Paris under Charles Le Brun and arrived in London in 1684 where he established a flourishing practice producing major decorative schemes for many of the most important interiors of the date, including Chatsworth, Marlborough House, Petworth and Hampton Court. The present impressive, large oil studies were made by Laguerre in preparation for a major decorative scheme and illustrate the breadth and ambition of his work.

George Vertue noted, in his short biography of Laguerre, that he was the son of a Catalonian who was ‘Maitre of the Menagerie of Foreign Fowles & Animals’ and that Louis XIV was his godfather.[1] Laguerre trained at the Académie Royale under Charles Le Brun, in 1682 he won third prize in the prix de Rome for a painting entitled Cain batit la ville d'Hénoch, and another third prize the following year, for his sculpture Invention des forges … par Tubal-Cain. Rather than stay in France Laguerre travelled to London in the company of another decorative painter Ricard. He rapidly established a practice in London, as Vertue noted: 

‘so young, yet so forward a Genius soon afterwards mett with encouragement from many Noblemen. & painted for them. Halls. Stair cases. Ceilings, &c. in a great Number’.[2]

Laguerre was responsible for executing decorative schemes in a number of significant interiors. His first major independent commission was for William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth, Derbyshire, where between 1689 and 1697 he painted at least six interiors, including the hall and chapel, with mythological and religious subjects. Thereafter he was much in demand for decorative schemes in the baroque manner. He was employed by William III at Hampton Court Palace, where his work included a series of roundels illustrating the labours of Hercules on the exterior of Fountain Court. In 1698 he painted the ballroom at Burghley House with scenes from the story of Anthony and Cleopatra. Other documented commissions include several interiors at Canons, Middlesex, for James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos, staircases at Buckingham House and Marlborough House, London, and at Petworth House, Sussex, as well as the saloon at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire.[3]

Laguerre was a director of Sir Godfrey Kneller's Academy of Painting, founded in 1711. His chief rival after the death of Verrio in 1707 was a fellow director of the academy, James Thornhill. In 1715 Laguerre was awarded the commission to paint the interior of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral but due to ‘some political contrivance’ the scheme was actually awarded to Thornhill.

The present paintings are unusually large sketches made in preparation for what must have been one of Laguerre’s grandest decorative schemes. A large amount of information about Laguerre’s working practice survives. A remarkable document, preserved in the Yorkshire Archaeological Society Archive, records the agreement made between Laguerre and Thomas Osborne, 4th Duke of Leeds for the decoration of the staircase at Kiveton House.[4] The agreement, dated 1704 and lists in remarkable detail the practical requirements Laguerre was required to fulfil in executing the fresco: ‘Lewis Laguerre will at his own charge find all the materials whatsoever as oyls colours and workmanship (Scaffolding excepted).’ The document also stipulates the programme of the scheme in detail: 

‘he shall paint in proper colours the upper ceilings and covings in the above said room with the history of the marriage between Psyche and Cupid as in a step thereof hereto affixed is shown forth as masterlike as he is capable of panting’.[5]

The ‘affixed’ drawing, preserved with the agreement, shows the ceiling was to be composed of an illusionistic sky populated by a pantheon of gods. The swirling mass of Baroque figures demonstrates Laguerre’s appeal; bringing a Continental language of decoration to English interiors. Laguerre’s work at Kiveton House was destroyed in 1811. At about the same date Laguerre completed work on the staircase hall at Buckingham House for John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham. The decoration demonstrates Laguerre’s skill at integrating wall and ceiling painting with the existing architecture. The ceiling, which shows Juno asking Venus to cause Aeneas and Dido to fall in love, is supported on a series of painted Telamons, flanked by painted grisaille medallions, in characteristic style, figures from the ceiling spill onto the walls.

The large sketches of Cupid and Psyche before Jupiter and A Feast of the Gods are characteristic of Laguerre’s composition and working method. The sketches seem likely to date from about 1720 but are currently unrelated to a specific project. The two designs show illusionistic skies filled with mythological characters. The first Cupid and Psyche before Jupiter reprises the subject-matter Laguerre had used in 1702 at Kiveton. As with the Kiveton drawing, the present sketch shows a multitude of figures seated on clouds, on the left hand side the figure of seated Minerva, on the right the figure of Mars and a seated figure of Mercury; in the centre of the composition Jupiter, with a large eagle at this feet, also identifiable are the figures of Venus, Bacchus and Hercules, Flora and Diana. Laguerre’s sketch is structured around architectural elements; as at Buckingham House, Telamons support an entablature and the cloud supporting Venus and her attendants break onto the wallspace, suggesting the scheme was also designed to include the decoration of the rest of the room. Compositionally the sketch of Cupid and Psyche is close to the work Laguerre carried out at Blenheim Palace.

In about 1720 Laguerre was commissioned to complete the decoration of the Saloon at Blenheim Palace. The ceiling depicted the Triumph of the Duke of Marlborough and was completed in roughly 1720. The composition and approach – particularly the vertical dynamism - are similar: the seated figure of Britannia on the left of the composition is close to the figure of Minerva on the left of Cupid and Psyche before Jupiter.

The ceiling design of The Feast of the Gods is even more architectonic. The assemblage of gods – identical to the figures found in Cupid and Psyche before Jupiter – are shown bursting through a frieze of Telamons supporting an entablature. The riotous composition displays the illusionistic grandeur of Laguerre’s most mature compositions. Narratively the pair of designs are closely related and clearly formed part of a programme of decoration for two conjoining rooms. The architectural decoration is also similar in both designs, but the visual emphasis is slightly different. In Cupid and Psyche before Jupiter, the action is more condensed and immediate suggesting the design is for a smaller room than The Feast of the Gods.

Unlike Thornhill, Laguerre produced few oil sketches and even fewer drawings. An anecdote related by Joseph Highmore, suggests the reason for this paucity: ‘Burleigh House is adorned with the paintings of several masters, among others, of Cheron and Laguerre; these two were employed on different apartments. At their arrival, Cheron opened his chest of drawings after the life, such as academy figures, draperies &c. and Lord Exeter observing that Laguerre produced nothing of this kind, asked him where was his box of drawings. Laguerre, pointing to his head, answered, ‘I carry them all here.'[6] It suggests that the present grand bozetti were made specifically for a demanding client and underlines their rarity and importance.

These two oil sketches first appeared on the market in June 1957 when they were with Appleby Brothers in London and attributed to James Thornhill. The canvases were with Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox by 1961 when they were sold separately to the great architectural historian John Harris and the eminent bibliophile Anthony Hobson. It was Harris who recognised that the canvases were by Laguerre by the time he lent The Feast of the Gods to the exhibition English Baroque Sketches: The Painted Interior in the Age of Thornhill held at Marble Hill in 1974. The Feast of the Gods was then lent to the important exhibition: Manners & Morals: Hogarth and British Painting 1700-1760 held at the Tate Gallery in 1987 as the single example of a great French Baroque ceiling design from the period.

These large sketches are two of the most ambitious surviving oil studies made by the most significant decorative history painter in Britain in the early eighteenth century. They neatly illustrate the prevailing fashion for Baroque, illusionistic decoration which dominated British interiors in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Laguerre was a highly important figure within the London art world and Vertue’s obituary notice stressed that he was: ‘a man of Good Judgement wellread in historys sacred & profane’ and he concluded: ‘From his Paintings most of the Present History painters learnt the Manner of such works.’[7] This is a significant observation and underscores the centrality of Laguerre to a generation of ‘History’ painters.

References

  1. G. Vertue, eds. L. Cust and A. Hind, ‘The Notebooks of George Vertue’, The Walpole Society, London, 1929-47, III, pp.125-6. 
  2. G. Vertue, eds. L. Cust and A. Hind, ‘The Notebooks of George Vertue’, The Walpole Society, London, 1929-47, III, pp.125-6.
  3. For the fullest discussion of Laguerre as a decorative painter, see: Edward Croft-Murray, Decorative Painting: In England 1537-1837, London, 1962, I, pp.61-68 and 250-4. 
  4. Norbert Lynton, ‘Laguerre at Kiveton’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.98, no.639, 1956, pp.204-207. 
  5. Norbert Lynton, ‘Laguerre at Kiveton’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.98, no.639, 1956, p.205.
  6. The Gentleman’s Magazine, LXXXVI, part 1, April, 1816, p.302. 
  7. G. Vertue, eds. L. Cust and A. Hind, ‘The Notebooks of George Vertue’, The Walpole Society, London, 1929-47, III, pp.125-6.