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Oedipus at Colonos

CAT 169 Angus after Peyron Oedipus at Colonos BA 119.jpg

CAT 169. Angus after Peyron. Oedipus at Colonos. London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, 1808. Published in Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 3, 1815. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

(Jean-François-) Pierre Peyron (1744-1814) was a colleague and chief rival of Jacques-Louis David in the decades immediately before the French Revolution. A native of Aix-en-Provence, he arrived in Paris in 1767 and won the Prix de Rome, over David, in 1773. Both men went to Rome in 1776, where, with Regnault, they studied and painted for the rest of the decade. By the time Peyron returned to Paris in 1782, the essence of his artistic style was established: “composed with great clarity and elegance in the form of a frieze, the expression and gestures of the protagonists are sober and without exaggeration, a delicate and enamel-like paint surface is combined with great refinement of colour.” Emulating the “austerity” of Poussin, “the artist he most admired,” he was seen by his own admirers as the artist who, even more than David, would be able to lead French art from the Rococo into a “new Neo-classical seriousness” (van de Sandt 583-84).

The first blow to those hopes came at the Salon of 1785, when David’s Oath of the Horatii eclipsed Peyron’s Death of Alcestis. The next came at the Salon of 1787, when David’s painting of The Death of Socrates eclipsed Peyron’s sketch of the same subject, hung next to the David because Peyron had not yet completed his full-scale painting of the subject. Although Peyron went on to exhibit his Death of Socrates the following year, and to execute a very effective etching after his own painting, this “public check to his career,” followed by the turbulence of the Revolutionary period, led him to take refuge in small-scale illustrative projects until the establishment of the First Empire (1804-14) resulted in his receiving “several official commissions.” During these latter years of his career, he “continued to exhibit at the Salon but remained on the fringes of artistic life” (van de Sandt 584).

Certainly Peyron must have had some of the vicissitudes of his own artistic life in mind when he exhibited a small painting (“un petit tableau”) of Oedipus at Colonos at the Salon of 1806. The composition derived from drawings of the subject he had exhibited at the Salon in 1785, the year in which the frieze-like stasis of his Death of Alcestis had been eclipsed by glittering swords of David’s Horatian oath (Rosenberg and van de Sandt, cat. nos. 87-90, pp. 107-09). The once proud Oedipus, in exile at Colonos in his blind old age—railing at his own son Polynices, who had sent him into exile after the multiple tragedies he had suffered and provoked in Thebes, in spite of the attempts of his daughter Antigone to restrain him—would have had a very different meaning for Peyron in 1806 than in 1785. The commentary that accompanied the engraving by Angus in the Historic Gallery noted that Peyron, after having borrowed “the subject of his admirable picture” of the Death of Alcestis from Euripides, was now “indebted in great measure to Sophocles for the ground-work of this composition” (vol. 3, 1815, n.p.). Melville's collection of ancient busts from the Historic Gallery includes the engraving of Sophocles by George Cooke (CAT 7). 

For all the differences in the lives and careers of artists such as David, Regnault, Taillasson, and Peyron once the French Revolution intervened in their individual artistic trajectories, certain similarities between their contrasting modes of neo-classicism and that of their predecessor Poussin are evident when comparing the five outline engravings from their paintings that Melville collected (CAT 165-169) with those he collected after paintings by Poussin (CAT 138-141). The absence of color in all these outline engravings from the Historic Gallery clarifies the degree to which Poussin’s manner of deploying human figures in the seventeenth-century continued to influence the artistry of David, Regnault, Taillasson, and Peyron in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Melville’s awareness of the continuities between Poussin and these French successors from the Revolutionary period was evident when I first examined the prints from his collection at the Berkshire Athenaeum in the mid-1980s. Melville had written “N. Poussin” on a folded sheet of paper (fig. 1) within which his outline engravings after Poussin were accompanied by those after Regnault’s Death of Cleopatra, Taillasson’s Hero and Leander, Peyron’s Oedipus at Colonos, and Le Brun’s Battle of the Granicus (Wallace, 1986, pp. 75-76).

CAT 169 fig 1 Melville writes N. Poussin ono folded sheet.jpg

Figure 1. The folded sheet of paper enclosing outline engravings after paintings by Poussin, Regnault, Taillasson, Peyron, and Le Brun on which Melville wrote “N. Poussin.” Study photo from the Berkshire Athenaeum.