BY ALEXANDER COLLINS
Declared ‘the greatest French artist of all time’ by Louis XIV, ‘Premier Peintre du Roi‘, Charles Le Brun, possessed an exceptional authority over royal commissions for paintings, sculpture and decorative arts throughout three decades. He became the nation’s foremost arbiter of taste. During his tenure as chief painter to the king, he became the most significant champion of the genre of ‘history painting’, which comprised of mythological, allegorical, religious and historical themes. This category of painting in the 17th century was considered the noblest of all (above genre and landscape), because of the way in which it conceals within a narrative the virtues, mysteries and herculean deeds of great men. This stylistic marriage of jubilation and reason, of divine glory and earthly pomp, became the prototype for the Baroque French interior, notably Le Brun’s work in the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre.
The genesis of Le Brun’s Galerie d’Apollon can be traced to the construction projects that followed in the wake of a devastating fire at the Louvre’s Petite Galerie, in January 1661. The carelessness of workmen erecting a theatre set in the gallery in preparation for the King’s ballet, brought about a blaze that destroyed much of its interior decoration. With little time wasted, Le Brun submitted a series of plans for its restoration. The theme upon which he based his designs was one sufficiently French and sufficiently flattering to his megalomaniac employer, namely, the glorification of Louis XIV, as personified by the Greek god Apollo. The artist made a great many drawings for the room, yet the design that was finally adopted, but not entirely executed, proposed to divide the ceiling into eleven compartments. At its centre was to be Apollo seated in his chariot, whilst the other ten sections were to feature the ‘Seasons’, ‘The Muses’, ‘Morning,’ ‘Evening’ and ‘The Awakening of the Waters and the Earth’ at sunrise. Le Brun’s plan was characterised by a distinct harmony and interplay between both the painted and architectural elements in the decoration.
Following the death of Le Brun in 1690, work at the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre was all but abandoned and forgotten for over a century. The room found itself re-appropriated for a number of uses. In 1747, Le Brun’s works were permanently removed, and other, more contemporary pieces were exhibited in their place. However, by 1751, the gallery had adopted the role as a studio for the use of pupils who were working at the Academie de Peinture, under the protection of Louis XV. Under the directorship of the Marquis de Marigny, the decision was taken to complete the work that had been begun in the room by Le Brun some one hundred years earlier.
Louis XVIII was determined to finish the work on Le Brun’s masterpiece, yet his own death brought the proposal to an untimely end. In 1833, Louis-Philippe took to the task of finishing what his predecessors had failed to complete. His design was to fill the uncompleted panels of Le Brun’s design with paintings illustrating the history of the Louvre, using the talents of Tony and Alfred Johannot, Merry-Joseph Blondel and François-Édouard Picot. All of the commissioned paintings were executed, but before they could be hung in the gallery, a programme of structural repair in the room was decided upon. Louis-Philippe lost all interest in his works at the Louvre, and his attention shifted to that of Versailles, with the Galerie d’Apollon being once again forgotten.
Following the French Revolution of 1848, the Constituent Assembly voted in favour for the completion of Le Brun’s work at the Galerie d’Apollon, to the sum of two million francs. A scheme of work was devised shortly after: including the retouching of paintings ‘Evening’, ‘Night’, and ‘The Triumph of Neptune’ and Amphitrite’; the execution of Le Brun’s design for ‘Triumph of the Earth’; and the restoration of the 17th century arabesques. However, the most significant painting was the seven metre work designed to fill a compartment in the ceiling. It was in this section that Le Brun planned to represent Apollo in all his glory.
This prestigious commission was awarded to Eugene Delacroix who had already proven the richness and intensity of his imagination through his painting of the library of the Chamber of Deputies and Chamber of Peers. His ‘Apollo Vanquishing the Serpent Python’, as it became known after its completion in 1850, retained Le Brun’s original ambition to portray Apollo, but enhanced the artist’s design with the addition of a further layer of allegory: intelligence wrestling with barbarity and light struggling with darkness. By emphasising the contrast between these two elements of the composition, the world of the sun above, and that of darkness beneath, Delacroix successfully transformed Le Brun’s project, but in a faithful manner that echoed the ‘Premier Peintre’s’ surviving work at the Louvre.