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The Vestal Tuccia Carrying Water in a Sieve


CAT 176. Goupil and Cie after Hector Leroux. The Vestal Tuccia Carrying Water in a Sieve. Published for The chefs-d’oeuvre d’art of the International Exposition of 1878. Philadelphia: Gebbie and Barrie, 1878-80. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Hector Leroux (1829-1900), a native of Verdun, won the second Prix de Rome in 1857. He “spent the next 17 years based in Rome, traveling from there to the rest of Italy, to Greece, Asia Minor, Turkey and Egypt, with occasional visits to Paris.” Leroux made his debut at the Paris Salon in 1863 with A New Vestal Virgin. “From this time he painted almost entirely classical subjects,” with a continuing interest in Roman’s ancient vestal virgins (Pons, 231). The Vestal Tuccia Carrying Water in a Sieve was a major attraction at the Salon of 1874. Louis Gonse was so enamored of the painting in his review of the Salon for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts that he included a sketch of a detail from the painting in which Tuccia holds the sieve high above her head in the miracle by which she proves her chastity. Gosne praises Leroux for his portrayal of the soft morning light, the massive temples on the far side of the Tiber, and the “chaste and gracious figure” of Tuccia, draped in her long tunic, her bare arms “deliciously modeled” as she holds high the miraculous sieve that does not leak. With this work of “tender gravity” and “sweet melancholy” Leroux has proven himself one of the finest poets of the age (30-31).

Melville’s print from this painting dates from the Universal Exposition of 1878 at which The Vestal Tuccia Carrying Water in a Sieve and other works by Leroux were included. Goupil and Cie reproduced the painting in volume of chefs-d’oeuvre from the Exposition published in Phildelphia and edited by Earl Shinn (who used the pseudonym Edward Strahan). Goupil reproduced the painting by the photogravure process it had only recently perfected in 1877, conveying to the viewer not only the full presence of Tuccia and her vestments but also such details as the holes in the sieve visible against the sky, the individual Latinate letters carved into the stone tablet, and the features of the three vestal virgins in the niche as well as the other figures arrayed along the near shore. Shinn’s commentary points to the “serene exaltation” embodied by “the Roman Vestal who proved her chastity by carrying water in a sieve from the Tiber to Vestal’s temple.” So expert is Leroux in depicting the antique that “the classical draperies seemed to fall from his hand without effort over a female form worthy of a Greek sculpture” (Shinn, Chefs d’oeuvre, 30). One element of the original painting that Melville’s engraving could not convey is the atmospheric splendor of the early morning light” (fig. 1).

CAT 176 fig. 1 Hector after Leroux The Vestal Tuccia, 1874 Wikimedia Commons.jpg

Figure 1. Hector Leroux. The Vestal Tuccia Carrying Water in a Sieve, oil on canvas, 1874. Paris Salon in 1874, Universal Exposition in 1878. Listed in Catalogue of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., 1887.

Shinn introduced the pictorial masterpieces of the 1878 Paris Exposition by establishing for his American audience the political and economic context in which its grandiose showcase for art was created. “Seven years after a war that lost to France two beautiful lands, and that was followed by a civil revolution which laid much of Paris in ashes . . . the French . . . have put up these superb buildings, at a cost of fifty millions of francs, the double of what an Empire not noted for economy had spent on the Exposition of 1867” (p. vi). While the French were spending heavily to preserve their cultural heritage, wealthy Americans were spending heavily to copy it. Shinn’s 1878 commentary on Leroux’s Vestal Tuccia noted that two replicas of that painting were already in American collections, one in a private collection, the other in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. Similarly, a replica of Leroux’s “most celebrated work,” his depiction of “a funeral train descending into the Columbarium of the Caesars” in Rome, had been acquired by John Taylor Johnson, the first president of the Metropolitan Museum in New York (30).

As Melville was expanding his private collection of prints in the 1880s, the prints he acquired after Decamps, Meisonnier, Toulmouche, and Leroux would have resonated as much with the wealthiest American collectors and institutions as his etching by Manet. Shinn’s list of paintings owned by Mr. William Astor in the three-volume Art Treasures of America in 1880 included works by Decamps, Meisonnier, Toulmouche, and Leroux but none by Manet (3:12). Shinn in his Ėtudes in Modern French Art in 1882 reported that Leroux’s original painting of the Vestal Tuccia had been acquired by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, that his Daniades had been acquired by Mr. William Astor, and his School of Vestals by John Jacob Astor (32). The Corcoran Gallery in its 1887 catalogue listed the size of Leroux’s Vestal Tuccia (4 ½ x 8 ½ feet), quoted from Tuccia’s plea to the goddess Vesta (“allow me to fill this sieve with the water of the Tiber, and carry it into thy Temple!”), and emphasizes that “the shores and wharves of the Tiber are given with strict local truth. The whole interest converges upon the form of Tuccia, while distant masses of the people, a near group of Vestals, and a solitary fisher-boy in the foreground, watch her in eager expectation of the issue of the miraculous test” (Catalogue, no. 7, p. 44).

Melville would have had a chance to see an original painting by Leroux after his Roman Ladies at the Tomb of their Ancestors entered New York’s Metropolitan Museum as part of the Catherine Lorillard Wolfe Collection in 1887 (no. 35 in Hand-book no. 1: November 1990 to April 1891, 19 x 35 inches). This painting, however, like Toulmouche’s Homage to Beauty, is not on the Museum’s website today, as it was deaccessioned and sold by auction in the 1950s. Perhaps, like Homage to Beauty, it is known today by a different name. Given Melville’s interest in Roman history and French painting, it would be good to see how Leroux had depicted this subject. If we are able to identify an image of this painting, we will add it to this site.

Shinn opens his Ėtudes in Modern French Art by asking, “Whom are we to believe? We find ourselves among the partisans of Meissonier, who declare Courbet to have been a barbarian” and “among the partisans of Manet, who declare Fortuny to have been a juggler.” The pivotal chapters in his exploration of such questions pits “Meissonier and the ‘Realists’” against “Le Roux and the ‘Idealists’” (iv, ch. 2, 3). Melville’s print collection, like the conversation among the Old Masters in his “At the Hostelry,” shows no need to choose between the realists and the idealists. His personal aesthetic remained one in which “unlike things must meet and mate” (NN PP 280).