Sunday, May 10, 2015

Joseph-Benoît Suvée, Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi

Joseph-Benoît Suvée, Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, 1795
126 x 163 in.

Joseph-Benoît Suvée (1743-1807) was a Flemish painter who emulated the French Neoclassical style.  Born in Bruges, he moved to Paris when he was nineteen to study painting.  In 1772 he won the Prix de Rome and spent a few years in Rome furthering his skills.  When he returned to France in 1778 he was admitted to the Academy.  He became a rival of Jacques-Louis David, earning his hatred.  Suvée was a skilled academic painter who, like most artists at the time, frequently depicted scenes from Classical history and mythology, as well as creating several depictions of allegory that resemble portraiture.  One of his most interesting paintings is entitled The Invention of Drawing (1791) and depicts the legendary invention of portrait drawing, wherein a young woman traced her lover's silhouette before he went off to war to remember him by.  Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi is perhaps Suvée's most famous painting, and hangs in the Louvre.  Cornelia Africana was the daughter of famed general Scipio Africanus and was held up as an archetype of a virtuous Roman woman.  She married Tiberius Gracchus Major, who was much older, but the two were quite happy together.  When he died she chose not to remarry despite her youth, and he is depicted as the statue in the nook at the center of the background. Cornelia was the mother of the Gracchi brothers, who became consuls and attempted to pass major reforms. They proposed redistributing major tracts of aristocratically owned land to the poor and veterans, as well as other social reforms.  They are sometimes considered the first Socialists.  This painting is a traditional Neoclassical piece.  Using precise brushwork, rich colors, and sculptural forms, the painting use space, architecture, and a group of figures in a traditional and powerful way to tell its story.  This scene is based on a story from the brothers' youth.  When a rich woman visited the Gracchi household, she was showing off her jewels and finery. Cornelia, who lived a life of relative austerity, called her two sons into the room and said, "These are my jewels."

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