Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin
French painter, b. at Lyons, 23 March, 1809; d. at Rome, 21 March, 1864. He came of a family of poor artisans and was a pupil of the sculptor Legendre and of Revoil. In his education, however, two elements must above all be taken into account. The first is the Lyonnaise genius. Various causes, physical and historical, have combined to give the city of Lyons a character all its own. This is twofold - religious and democratic - and the labouring classes have always been an active centre of idealism. This is especially noticeable in its poets, from Maurice Scève to Lamartine. Lyons has also always been the great entrepôt for Italy, and the province was a permanent centre of Roman culture. The second factor in Flandrin's development was the influence of Ingres, without which it is doubtful whether Flandrin would have achieved any fame. In 1829 Flandrin, with his brother Jean-Paul (the landscape painter), went to Paris, where he became a pupil of Ingres, who conceived a paternal affection for him. In Paris the young man experienced the bitterest trials. He was often without a fire, sometimes without bread, but he was sustained by a quiet but unshakable faith, and finally (1832) carried off the Grand Prix de Rome through "The Recognition of Theseus by his Father". At Rome, where, after 1834, Ingres was director of the French Academy, his talents expanded and blossomed under the influence of natural beauty, a mild climate, and the noble spectacle of the works of classic and Christian antiquities. He sent thence to the French salons: "Dante and Virgil" (Lyons Museum, 1835); "Euripides" (Lyons Museum, 1835); "St. Clare Healing the Blind" (Cathedral of Nantes, 1836); "Christ Blessing the Children" (Lisieux Museum, 1837). The serenity of his nature, his chaste sense of form and beauty, his taste for effective disposition of details, his moral elevation, and profound piety, found expression in these early efforts. On his return to Paris, in 1838, he was all intent upon producing great religious works.
At this time there sprang up throughout the French School a powerful reaction against "useless pictures", against the conventional canvases exhibited since the end of the eighteenth century (Quatremère de Quincy, "Notices historiques", Paris, 1834, 311). There was a return to an art more expressive of life, less arbitrary, more mural and decorative. Delacroix, Chassériau, and the aged Ingres were engaged on mural paintings. It was above all, however, the walls of the churches which offered an infinite field to the decorators, to Chassériau, Victor Mottez, Couture, and Amaury Duval. Within fifteen or twenty years this great pictorial movement, all too obscure, left on the walls of the public buildings and churches of Paris pictorial treasures such as had not been seen since the age of Giotto. It is possible, and even probable that the first impulse towards this movement (especially so far as religious paintings are concerned) was due to the Nazarene School. Ingres had known Overbeck and Steinle at Rome; Flandrin may well have known them. In any case it is these artists whom he resembles above all in purity of sentiment and profound conviction, though he possessed a better artistic education. From 1840 his work is scarcely more than a painstaking revival of religious painting. The artist made it his mission in France to serve art more brilliantly than ever, for the glory of God, and to make beauty, as of old, a source of instruction and an instrument of edification to the great body of the faithful. He found a sort of apostolate before him. He was one of the petits prédicateurs de l'Evangile. Artistic productions in the mid-nineteenth century, as in the Middle Ages, became the Biblia Pauperum.
Henceforth Flandrin's life was passed almost entirely in churches, hovering between heaven and earth on his ladders and scaffolds. His first work in Paris was in the chapel of St-Jean in the church of St-Séverin. He next decorated the sanctuary and choir of the church of St-Germain-des-Prés (1842-48). On either side of the sanctuary he painted "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem" and "The Journey to Calvary", besides the figures of the Apostles and the symbols of the Evangelists. All these are on a gold background with beautiful arabesques which recall the mosaic of Torriti at Santa Maria Maggiore. At St. Paul, Nîmes (1847-49), he painted a lovely garland of virgin martyrs, a prelude to his masterpiece, the frieze in the nave of the church of St-Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. The last is a double procession, developing symmetrically between the two superimposed arches, without any exaggeration, a Christian Panathenæa, as it was called by Théophile Gautier. It might be shown how the ancient Greek theme is subjected, in the work of the modern painter, to a more flexible, less uniform, and more complex rhythm, how the melodic procession, without losing any of its grandeur or its continuity, is strengthened by silences, pauses, cadences. But it is more important to note the originality in the return to the most authentic sources of Christian iconography. Hitherto painters of this class hardly went back beyond the fourteenth or fifteenth century. But Flandrin turned to the first centuries of the Church, and drew his inspiration from the very fathers of religious thought. In the frieze of St-Vincent-de-Paul fifteen centuries of Christian tradition are unrolled. In 1855 the artist executed a new work in the apse of the church of Ainay near Lyons. On his return he undertook his crowning work, the decoration of the nave of St-Germain-des-Prés. He determined to illustrate the life of Christ, not from an historical, but from a theological, point of view, the point of view of eternity. He dealt less with facts than with ideas. His tendency to parallelism, to symmetry, found its element in the symbolism of the Middle Ages. He took pleasure in considering, according to this system of harmony and relations, the Old Testament as the prototype of the New, the burning bush as representing the Annunciation, and the baptism of Christ as prefiguring the crossing of the Red Sea.
It was, perhaps, the first time since the frescoes of Perugino and Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel, that Christian art returned to its ancient genius. The interrupted tradition was renewed after three centuries of the Renaissance. Unhappily the form, despite its sustained beauty, possesses little originality. It is lacking in personality. The whole series, though exhibiting a high degree of learning and poise, of grace, and even of strength, lacks charm and life. The colouring is flat, crude, and dull, the design neutral, unaccented, and commonplace. It is a miracle of spiritual power that the seriousness of thought, the truth of sentiment, more harsh in the Old Testament, and more tender in the Christian, scenes, glow through this pedantic and poor style. Certain scenes, such as "The Nativity", which strongly recalls that of Giotto at Padua, possess a sweetness which is quite human in their conventional reserve. Others, such as "Adam and Eve after the Fall", and "The Confusion of Tongues", are marked by real grandeur. This was Flandrin's last work. He was preparing a "Last Judgment" for the cathedral of Strasburg, when he went to Rome, where he died.
Apart from his religious work, Flandrin is the author of some very charming portraits. In this branch of painting he is far from possessing the acute and powerful sense of life of which Ingres possessed the secret. Nevertheless, pictures such as the "Young Girl with a Pink", and the "Young Girl Reading", of the Louvre, will always be admired. Nothing could be more maidenly and yet profound. His portraits of men are at times magnificent. Thus in the "Napoleon III" of the Versailles Museum the pale massive countenance of Caesar and his dream-troubled eyes reveal the impress of destiny. An admirable "Study of a Man" in the Museum of the Louvre, is quite "Ingresque" in its perfection, being almost equal to that master's Oedipus. What was lacking to the pupil in order that the artistic side of his work should equal its merits from the religious and philosophic side was the power of always painting in the style displayed in this portrait.
DELABORDE, Lettres et pensées d'Hippolyte Flandrin (Paris, 1865); BLANC, Artistes de mon temps (Paris, 18-), 263; Gazette des Beaux-Arts, XVII (1864), 105, 243; XVIII (1865), 63, 187; XXIV (1868), 20; GAUTIER, Les Beaux-Arts en Europe, 1855, I, 283; MAURICE HAMEL in Musée d'art, Paris, no date, II, 86.