The Finding of Moses, Ca. 1758-1759.
Oil on canvas, H. 0.55 m; W. 0.73 m
Signed and dated lower right: Pierre 175*.
Provenance: Private collection, France.
Nicolas Lesur, Olivier Aaron, Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre 1714-1789. Premier peintre du roi, Paris, 2009, p. 291, P 207.
A pupil of Charles Natoire, Pierre won the Grand Prize in 1734. From 1735 to 1740 he was a pensionnaire at the French Academy in Rome, where the directors Nicolas Vleughels and then Jean-François de Troy considered him to be one of the best pupils.
After his return to Paris he quickly became agréé (1741) and was admitted to the Académie (1742). He gradually rose through all the ranks of the career of a history painter at the Académie, reaching the position of director in 1770. The same year, he succeeded Boucher as First Painter to the King (a position that usually went with that of director of the Académie). After 1770, Pierre radically limited his activity as a painter to be able to concentrate fully on directing the Académie with the ambition to return the institution to the glory it had enjoyed in the 17th century. At that time, the Marquis de Marigny retired, Charles-Nicolas Cochin no longer had responsibility for running the arts and the artistic policy of the new Directeur des Bâtiments, the Comte d’Angiviller, would explicitly favour commissions for paintings awarded on the occasion of the Salon and for the future Museum and no longer for the needs of the crown (Gobelins, decorations for the royal houses).
From the middle of the 18th century, Pierre was considered one of the greatest French painters, but this fame contrasts with the oblivion, even contempt, that followed just after the Revolution and which lasted until the end of the 20th century. Judgments concerning the man, reputed to be authoritarian, tyrannical and jealous, and his role as a powerful administrator of the Ancien Régime, undoubtedly contributed to the disrepute of his artistic work. Ignorance of his work, which was dispersed after the Revolution, prevented an objective study of it. For example, the two major decors which made him famous in his own time, The Apotheosis of Psyche at the Palais Royal and the ceiling of the Salon of Armida in the chateau of Saint-Cloud, were destroyed during his lifetime. Of the two cupolas in the church of Saint-Roch in Paris, only the Assumption of the Virgin survives.
His style is not easy to qualify because he is marked by a certain eclecticism which comes quite naturally from the fact that Pierre worked in several genres and on a wide variety of media: his work does not include only vast ceiling compositions and large altarpieces, but also numerous genre paintings and mythological overdoors, etchings and drawings for illustration.
Pierre is the history painter who exhibited the largest number of genre paintings at the salon during the 1740s. At the same time he received, with Carle Vanloo, the most commissions for paintings for Parisian churches.
Although his works perpetuate the tradition of painters born around 1700 (Boucher, Natoire, Vanloo), his history paintings show a more linear and severe composition. In the same way, his use of bright colours and his smooth and precise technique show, compared to the artists of the preceding generation, a definite care for sobriety and restraint.
In 1759, reinforced by the success of the great ceilings of Saint-Roch and the Palais-Royal, Pierre presented his works again to the public, but outside the Salon. La Feuille Nécessaire thus announced in July 1759 that the artist was exhibiting “five small paintings, newly finished” in his studio and stated that, “his genius, which nothing limits, has placed in these small Paintings all the force & expression that we admire in his large ones.”
Our painting is probably The Finding of Moses exhibited on this occasion, the pendant of which is Moses and the Daughters of Jethro. Both were in the Loliée collection (the son-in-law and heir of Marguerite Le Comte, Claude-Henri Watelet’s mistress) and were apparently sold together in Paris on 4-5 March 1816 under number no. 13.
Painted at the summit of his artistic career, The Finding of Moses shows confident draughtsmanship without rigidity, rich and subtle colouring and a skilfully arranged composition around large diagonal lines. Pierre makes his figures monumental, depicting them from a low point of view. Calm and restraint emanate from the work, and we are far here from the theatricality and excess of pathos of the paintings of the previous generation.