Commentary on Diane surprised (Diane surprise)
Au bruit qui vient des bois, Diane s’est dresséFrémissante; et la troupe, autor d’elle empresséeDe ses nymphes sortant de l’eau, blanches de peur,Jette un voile hâtif à sa fière pudeur. Critic, poet and official Georges Lafenestre used these words to present Jules Lefebvre’s Diane surprise (Diane Surprised) in the catalog for the 1879 Salon (1). Including poems was not a common practice for a volume limited to mentioning the participating artists and the titles of the works presented. These verses therefore speak not only of the critic’s personal taste and official aesthetics at that time—Lafenestre was a member of the Ministère de l’Instruction Publique et des Beaux-Arts—but also of the painting’s and the artist’s importance in that context. Lefebvre is presented in the catalog as a student of Léon Cogniet, who was a prominent figure in French academic education during the mid-19th Century, and he was listed as hors concours (not competing) since he had obtained medals in the 1865 and 1868 salons and had been named Chevalier (Knight) of the Légion d'honneur for his work La Vérité (The Truth), then on exhibit at the Musée du Luxembourg (today the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). In addition, Lefebvre had been acting as a regular member of the Salon jury since 1875. He had a solid academic art career, which also included the requisite passage through the Villa Medici in Rome (1861-1867), where the influence of Ingres still reigned (2). This solid trajectory was put at stake in this large work by Lefebvre, which the artist himself considered to be a tour de force in his production. In this sense, Jules Claretie points out that the artist dedicated from two to three years to perfecting this painting, “his favorite piece” to the point where he did not consider it to be finished in time for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878 and decided to send other works that had already been exhibited, for which he was awarded with a first class medal (3).At first glance, it is clear that a great amount of effort has been invested in the composition and flesh tones of the main characters in Diane surprise. In multiplying the female nudes by seven, Lefebvre raised the bar in comparison to his envoys to the Salon in previous years. Here we refer, for example, to the aforementioned La Vérité, the La Cigale (The Grasshopper, 1872 Salon, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) or Pandora (1877 Salon, inv. 2872, MNBA). All these works show frontal female nudes; in the case of La Cigale and Pandora, they are highly idealized, practically adolescent bodies. The skin has a pearly finish thanks to intense work with glazing. All body hair and any marks have been erased, but their absence does not result in the exhibition of genitals, which appear to be veiled. Nevertheless, the penetrating gaze of these girls that emanates from an undefined position between youth and womanhood transforms them into true femmes fatales, who facilitate an explicit projection of desire.Surprised by an assumed observer who does not appear in the painting, a hunting Diana and her cortege modestly attempt to cover themselves, without managing to cover the majority of the feminine attributes of their pearly bodies in the process. The masculine presence alluded to is actually no more than a moralizing excuse to legitimize the exhibition of so many nudes, as are the arrows, the dead deer and the small moon on Diana’s forehead, elements that legitimize the title and then pass by unnoticed. The level of polish and idealization of the bodies is very high; if the pristine foot of the nymph with her back to the viewer is observed, for example, it bears no sign of grass or mud. The lesson imparted by Ingres has been well incorporated here: line draws and encloses bodies and flesh is modeled in the most subtle way possible, to the point where they become almost homogenous surfaces of color with scant gradations of light. One of the two girls who appear partially covered, the one on the far right, directs her gaze toward an undefined place, distracted from what is taking place around her. Her countenance foretells the unsettling presence of the perturbed creatures so adored by the symbolists and decadentists at the end of the century, a trait that can also be extended to include Diana’s violent and abundant red hair. The artifice employed in this painting was pointed out by its critics as well as by those who defended it, given that in order for it to be effective, it had to be not only believable, but also to become evident. The enormous amount of effort invested in its composition, color, modeling and drawing did not go by unnoticed; this was the painting’s strongpoint and academic art’s reason for being. Jules Castagnary rescued the painting, comparing its author to another great figure of reference in the academic tradition, William Bouguereau, auguring that it was due to both these maestros that this type of art “might live, if it hadn’t been anemic and fatally condemned since birth” (4). On the other hand, a naturalist writer and acid critic of academic painters such as J.-K. Huysmans reviled the painting, affirming that it exemplified “hollow and empty” art about “goddesses fabricated out of pamphlet poet’s verses” (5).In the 1879 Salon, the work was acquired by the English collector Duncan, who, according to Claretie, had “abducted the Diana that should honor and enrich our Luxembourg”. In the framework of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, in which Lefebvre figured as a member of the admissions jury, the work was once again exhibited and it may have been in this context that José Prudencio de Guerrico saw it, purchasing it from Boussod, Valadon et Cie., for the elevated price of 27,500 francs (6). Shipping the work and installing it in Buenos Aires must have cost a great deal of effort and money, and it became one of the most emblematic pieces in his collection. It was hung on the central wall in a hall at his residence on Corrientes Street, and became the undeniable focus of attention for all of the social gatherings and soirees that were frequently held at his museum-house.
by María Isabel Baldasarre
1— Explication des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et litographie des artistes vivants exposés au Palais des Champs-Élysées. Paris, Imprimerie Nationale, 1879, p. 154.
2— Ingres was Director of the Académie de France à Rome from 1835 to 1840. For details regarding academic education at the time of Lefebvre’s voyage, cf. Maestà di Roma. D’Ingres à Degas. Les artistes français à Rome, exhib. cat. Milan, Electa, 2003, VII.
3— Claretie, 1884, p. 359.
4— Castagnary, 1892, p. 364.
5— Huysmans, 1879, p. 28.
6— The price of the Diana was five or six times higher than the amount Guerrico paid that same year for other, smaller paintings by artists like Eugène Isabey, Antoine Vollon or Gustave Courbet. As a reference, at that time the cost per square meter for unconstructed land in a neighborhood like Notre-Dame was 622 francs.
1882-1885. BELLIER DE LA CHAVIGNERIE, Émile, Dictionnaire général des artistes de l’École français depuis l’origine des arts du dessin jusqu’à nos jours: architectes, peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs et lithographes. Paris, Librairie Renouard, t. 1, p. 967.
1884. CLARETIE, Jules, Peintres et sculpteurs contemporains. Deuxième série. Artistes vivants en 1881. Paris, Librairie des Bibliophiles, vol. 2, p. 357-362.
1892. CASTAGNARY, Jules-Antoine, Salons. 1872-1879. Paris, G. Charpentier et E. Fasquelle, t. 2, p. 364.
1908 . HUYSMANS, J.-K., “Le Salon de 1879” en: L’art moderne. Paris, Librairie Plon, p. 28.
1938. DA ROCHA, Augusto, “La Colección de Guerrico en el Museo Nacional”, La Ilustración Argentina, Buenos Aires, nº 15, [s.p.].
1988. OLIVEIRA CÉZAR, Lucrecia de, Los Guerrico. Buenos Aires, Gaglianone, p. 56, reprod. color p. 57.
2006. BALDASARRE, María Isabel, Los dueños del arte. Coleccionismo y consumo cultural en Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires, Edhasa, p. 152-153, 155, reprod. color nº 61. — BALDASARRE, María Isabel, “Sobre los inicios del coleccionismo y los museos de arte en la Argentina”, Anais do Museu Paulista: História e Cultura Material, São Paulo, vol. 14, nº 1, enero-junio, reprod. color p. 302.