Multidimensional painting in the 17th century
About the exhibition "Allegoria, the keys to Baroque symbolism", on show at the Domaine départemental de Sceaux (92) until 14 January 2024
I don't know about you, but this is the kind of exhibition that makes my mouth water! Allegoria, the keys to Baroque symbolism" is both entertaining and instructive, and can be seen from every angle, making me want to park my caravan in the large, convenient car park at the Domaine départemental de Sceaux, near Paris. Spotting symbolic objects in works of art, all those allegories that evoke abstract concepts, make mere mortals less afraid and elevate our thinking by representing objects, plants, animals... it fascinates me. More and more so, in fact. A question of age, perhaps? Let's say it's a question of experience (if I could, I'd have slipped you a smiley face here, of course). Still, finding an incongruous elephant in the background, a camel or a seashell... sounds like a fun game for children too, doesn't it?
In short, "the Allegoria exhibition offers an educational tour that will captivate young and old alike", as announced on the beautiful website of this estate, which I personally had never seen before. First there is the immense historic park, formerly the property of Colbert in the 17th century, the work of André Le Nôtre and restored by Léon Azéma in the 1930s. It has become a fine example of the French garden, while at the same time offering a judicious urban green space for relaxation, sport, games and festivities. Then there's the château, built in the 19th century and turned into a museum in 1937. Since then, countless works of art have been brought together here, bearing witness to the history of the site and its successive owners since Colbert. Engravings, drawings, paintings, sculptures, crockery, silverware, furniture, manuscripts, decorations... there's no counting the treasures that were once works of art for sale before arriving in this splendid collection, supplemented by a number of others from the Musée Carnavalet. And then there's the "Pavillon de l'Aurore", which makes you look up to admire its famous dome decorated by Charles Le Brun, a magnificent orangery designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, stables converted into reception and exhibition areas... not forgetting two other jewels of the estate: the "Petit Château" and the "Pavillon de Hanovre".
But after this lovely walk in the fresh air, let's move on to the fascinating temporary exhibition, which reveals the DNA of allegories, from the earliest symbols to the finest paintings of the 17th century. So what did the elephant, the obelisk, the bee, the tulip, the oak branch or the camel, the ostrich egg, the sunflower or the shell mean? You'll find the answers through objects, old books and, above all, an exceptional collection of 17th-century paintings.
The works on display come from private collections, several Fine Arts museums (Rennes, Quimper, Tours and Orléans), the Musée du Grand Siècle, the Musée du Domaine départemental de Sceaux, and the Hauts-de-Seine Archives. The exhibition is being prepared by Cloé Aknin, exhibition manager, and Céline Barbin, heritage curator. The exhibition is curated by Dominique Brême, Director of the Musée du Domaine départemental de Sceaux.
Before arriving at the gallery of allegorical paintings, and deciphering Le Temps coupant les ailes de l'Amour, by Pierre Mignard (rather than taking offence at the sight of an old man mistreating a baby), to set off on a dizzying meditation in front of Vanité, the painting by Simon Renard de Saint-André, to discover the hierarchy of genres in art history with the painting by Nicolas Loir, Apollon presenting the portrait of Colbert to the different genres of painting, and to understand, with the painting by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne entitled Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus (Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus is cold), that this was an ideal, no-holds-barred pretext for extolling sensual excesses and depicting voluptuous nudes... I recommend that you don't cut short the first part of the exhibition, which is certainly very didactic, but which will allow you to immerse yourself in the works of art with gusto. And, above all, with fresh eyes. For you are about to "enter the secret of the gods". That's hardly an exaggeration!
There's something delectable about this sensation of being handed the keys to unravelling the visual rebus that adorned the interiors of all the scholars of yesteryear. "In the November issue of L'Oeil magazine, Isabelle Manca-Kunert writes: "Allegory, the most popular genre of painting in the 17th century, enjoyed a spectacular boom and spread like wildfire through the cabinets of amateurs, but above all through the grand décor, which reached its apogee with the innumerable construction sites for palaces and private mansions in France. "Laurent de La Hyre, one of the most prominent artists of the period, championed these colourful dissertations. For the Hôtel Tallemant, he created a lavish iconographic cycle of seven allegories of the liberal arts, including L'Astronomie, one of the pinnacles of the genre". In this painting, painted around 1650, science is recognisable by its compass, armillary sphere, portable sundial and lunar calendar. And the sparkling blue mantle evoking the firmament must have cost the artist a lot of pure lapis lazuli pigments!
Symbolic language can actually be traced back to ancient Egypt, through figurative writing or hieroglyphics. From signs to emblems, it uses themes such as the French misnomer "nature morte" (still life), the language of flowers, insects, proverbs and fables... This language was codified in texts, in particular Cesare Ripa's Iconologia: this is how the genre was born. Attached to the court of Cardinal A. M. Salviati as his butler, Ripa (whose real name was Giovanni Campani) was the author of this unique work, published in 1593, which had a profound influence on artistic and literary thought for two centuries. It is a collection of allegorical personifications of virtues, vices, temperaments and passions, drawing on ancient literature on hieroglyphics, physiognomy, emblems, colour symbolism, bestiaries and medieval encyclopaedias.
The exhibition at the Domaine de Sceaux introduces the works that inspired this famous Iconologia: Horapollon's treatise on hieroglyphics, taken up by Valeriano, Alciati's book of emblems... and other old books on loan from the libraries of the Archives départementales André-Desguines and the Musée du Domaine de Sceaux. It may seem a little abstruse and off-putting, I grant you! But a (modest) introduction to Ripa's sources and manual, to make symbolic language more accessible... it's tempting, isn't it?
Article written by Valibri en Roulotte