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Master of the Week:
François Lemoyne

François Lemoyne - Hercules and Omphale - WGA12655
Hercules and Omphale, 1724

Born in Paris, 1688, François Lemoyne was a Rococo painter with flowing compositions, dramatic light, beautiful colors and graceful figures. A busy artist who was one of the many First Painters to the King of France, his tenure at Versailles (1736–1737) earned him the nickname of "new Lebrun". After his grievous death in 1737, the position as Premier peintre du Roi (Painter to the King) would be vacant for nine years before being replaced by Charles-Antoine Coypel. Lemoyne's legacy to the Rococo is his strong ties to the Baroque while embracing the sensuality of a new art movement that was unequivocally French.

In Hercules and Omphale, Lemoyne uses body language and symbolic objects to tell the story here. Omphale is standing yet leaning to the right to depict domination while Hercules is seated, his powerful legs apart and at angles that point directly to her. Note the sumptuous skin tones. In the myth, Hercules is punished for killing a prince named Iphitos by enslavement under a queen named Omphale and apparently made to "do women's work" and essentially become emasculated while she effectively wore the pants. However, over the course of the year that he was enslaved to her she freed him and became his lover, and eventually she married him. Here she is holding a staff under her arm that has a strong phallic reference while she looks tenderly in his eyes. He looks up at her while holding a distaf that she controls with her other hand, and she is wearing his lion furs while he is loosely draped in her clothing. In Greek art this aspect of Hercules' life is not often depicted for its demeaning view of a legendary hero, and in Baroque art this relationship frequently signifies the complacent domination of women over men. It also conveys a strong sexuality and feminine fantasy of a hero that does anything a woman wants, possibly even a tenderness in understanding each other's traditional roles and reaching a balanced relationship.

François Lemoyne - Woman Bathing - WGA12659
Baigneuse, after 1724

Note Lemoyne's eye for color here, contrasting warm and cool both visually and symbolically. The woman's skin is glowing in a warm yellow tone, and Lemoyne conceives her as both sensual and innocent at once, dipping her foot into the water. She is pure Rococo, stylized and delicate, with a face that is reminiscent of Correggio while the maid helping her to the right is pure Veronese, foreshortened and colorful. This is a theme that surprisingly was not explored fully in the Rococo in this way, heightening Lemoyne's keen intellect and eye for beauty.

Head of a Bearded Man in Profile to Left, pastel on brown paper
Click here for zoomable version

One of Lemoyne's pastel portraits revealing his razor sharp powers of perception and absorption of character. Note the facility of the medium under his skillful hands.

La Toilette de Venus by François Lemoyne
La Toilette de Venus

Lemoyne's flair for figure arrangement conjures a musicality in this painting. Note how the limbs of all the figures point to each other, helping to circulate the eye around the painting, and his use of asymmetry in the poses of the figures eg. the two figures on the bottom left standing with their arms pointing upward to contrast with the two women in blue and pink seated with their arms pointing down. The two women in light colors, the center figure presumably Venus, sit perpendicular to each other so that our eye looks first at the woman on the right and then Venus who looks at us. Lemoyne uses a pale sky for a background and frames this circular composition with cherubs holding an ochre colored drapery above the figures below, causing a slight shadow on the two women in blue and pink. Visually, Lemoyne knew how to concoct striking imagery with natural body language and just the right amount of color. Again, his skin tones mesmerize.

Venus and Adonis. Francois Lemoyne
Venus and Adonis

Lemoyne seems to be channeling Titian here, with deep earthy tones and very Renaissance-like figures, heightened with his unique use of warm skin tones surrounded by cool colors. The body language is clearly indicating that Adonis is leaving and Venus does not want him to leave. Even the cherub tugs at his clothing. What is different about this composition is how the figures dominate the foreground, larger than life, with the verdant trees and distant clouds almost enveloping them even though in the far background. Lemoyne has created a sense of realism to his space that is not commonly seen in Rococo painting, and his thick brushwork in the background clouds emphasizes this surreal world.

François Lemoyne - Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy - WGA12658
Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy, 1737

Lemoyne's last work, this beautiful painting was completed mere hours before he took his own life at the age of 49, distraught with the death of his wife and fed up with the politics of working at Versailles by stabbing himself several times. The great tragedy for us in this is how he was moving in a new direction with his art, as we see here by making full use of body language like never seen before in his previous works. Lemoyne creates a figure arrangement that is a fusion of Mannerism and Baroque, sculptural and pictorial, with Venetian color and dynamic foreshortening. Again, the figures occupy a space that is more real than his earlier works, and the there is a definite sense of distance and depth in this work. The figure on her back, Falsehood and Envy, is being poked by Time with the bottom of his scythe, and here Lemoyne somehow must have came to the conclusion that he himself had become these two unsavoury qualities, which led to his own demise. If there is any hindsight to his tragic end, it is that he was far from false and had little to envy of anyone in his era. Lemoyne was a Master who learned from the giants of the past to create magic with sharp insight and poetic harmony, even in this fury of his last masterpiece. Like Raphael in his last work, Lemoyne unwittingly realized that the figures are not merely elements to help narrate the story; they must become the story.

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