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Philippe de Champaigne

Philippe de Champaigne - The Last Supper - WGA4710
La Cène, ca. 1652

Born this day in 1602, Champaigne came from a poor family from Brussels—in contrast to Van Dyck who came from Antwerp from a well-to-do family—and his work is characterized by both portraiture and religious scenes, which he excelled at equally brilliantly. Champaigne embodies the French Baroque, and although he may have lacked some of the compositional genius of Rubens, he made up for it with drama, color, and always attention to anatomy without exaggeration.

In the above example, his take on The Last Supper reveals the very French contrast of warm and cool colours that is immediately pleasing to the eye. Despite the horizontal composition, it is the facial features of the apostles, especially against the dark background, with faint light coming in from the far right window in a small room that makes this rendition more intimate, more real. Placement of the hands seems to have been a Flemish fascination, and Champaigne had a definite gift for arm gesture. It is interesting how every apostle has their own unique gesture. This does two things: it defines the character of each individual, while at the same time is a compositional device to direct our eyes along the painting—each figure seems to point with their hands and faces towards Christ and the person next to them. A curiosity: there is no food whatsoever on the table, except for the wine and bread near Jesus—compare with Leonardo's version. I love the shadows Champaigne puts on the tablecloth, especially of the far right figure who strangely does not look at us at all. Compared to Judas on the left, with money bag in hand, these two figures on opposite ends of the table seem to suggest philosophical opposites also: betrayal vs honesty, greed vs generosity, empiricism vs Platonism. The large wine jug on the floor, as if unimportant, contrasts strongly with the smaller one on the table beside Christ, and here Champaigne articulates the major difference between celebration and friendship with the holy blood of Jesus. What is amazing is how he painted the reflections on the convex surface of the wine jug, fuzzy yet highly accurate.

This is a painter's painting. The way Champaigne painted the faces of these apostles is worthy of drawing or painting study alone, not to mention the drapery and the leg of Judas. A true Baroque gem.

Philippe de Champaigne Mary Magdalene
Mary Magdalene

Champaigne's portrait of Mary here again shows his flair of drapery and hands. Mary looks away from us in full profile, with a rugged cross and bible on her table, and she is dressed in a rather simple green with beige veil. This version may have inaccurate colours, compare with this photo of the actual painting but what is clear is how Champaigne contrasts warm skin tones of her hands with the cooler facial and neck areas. A very simple portrait yet with realism and drama. He uses detail to help tell the story and explain the subject, not to detract or show off his painting bravura.

Saints Gervase and Protase Appearing to St Ambrose, 1658

A curious story, this massive painting depicts the twin brothers Gervase and Protase, first martyrs of Milan, to Saint Ambrose in a vision. Little is known about the brothers except that their parents were also martyrs, that they were scourged and beheaded by Nero or Aurelius, and that their remains were apparently discovered in 386 A.D. What is interesting about this painting is the statuesque dignity of the brothers, both in white, and again the different hand gestures. Champaigne makes a rather freaky scene into something dramatic and beautiful: the saints, under their cloud, suggest that Ambrose look for their remains under the pavement of the church, which appears here to have unusual symbolism, including a spilled urn with riches pouring out of it. Again, Champaigne uses a dark background to heighten the main action while bathing the main figures in bright, warm light.

Cardinal de Richelieu mg 0053
Cardinal de Richelieu, 1642

For the last example, I chose Champaigne's closest friend and patron, Cardinal Richelieu. One of the rare instances Champaigne doesn't use hands in a portrait, instead using the palpable red and blue fabric of the Cardinal's uniform. Look at the amazing brushwork here in the is clear Champaigne had high regard for his friend and patron, who ensured him many commissions. Although only one of many portraits he did of Richelieu, this one is the most human and real for someone of that stature, and again Champaigne seems to show his reverence for subjects with the profile. This is the kind of portrait you study at the museum up close for as long as you can.


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