Description / Expertise
THOMAS BLANCHET (1614-1689)
Country of Origin
oil on canvas
(132.97 cm wide 95.88 cm high)
The subject of Cleobis and Biton was tackled on several occasions by Blanchet. In Greek mythology, Cleobis and Biton were Argives, the sons of Cydippe, a priestess of Hera. Cydippe was traveling from Argos to a festival in honor of Argive Hera. The oxen which were to pull her cart were overdue and her sons, Cleobis and Biton, pulled the cart the entire way (45 stadia, or 5.1 miles). Cydippe was impressed with their devotion to her and her goddess and she prayed to Hera, asking her to give her children the best gift a god could to a mortal. Hera ordained that the brothers would die in their sleep, and after the feast the youths lay down in the temple of Hera, slept and never woke. Herodotus, who relates the story in the first book of his Histories, says that the citizens of Argos donated a pair of statues to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi because the youths had been such excellent men.
Our painting, marked by a funereal and dreamlike atmosphere, belongs to a group of about a dozen works dating from Blanchet’s stay in Italy between 1647 and 1653. Guidi di Bango and the Cardinal Pietro Paolo Avila were two of his important Roman patrons but sadly there is no record of this painting’s commission. These works have several features in common: a geometrical and architectural construction, figures with declamatory gestures and lopsided postures, bony faces with large almond-shaped eyes, children with curly hair, landscapes with blue-tinted backgrounds, burgeoning clouds, ruins scattered in the foreground and small figures in the background. Blanchet worked in a style similar to that of other young French artists who admired the work of Poussin and had been inspired by his teaching. His paintings are sometimes confused with the works of Jean Lemaire or Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy.
In addition to our newly discovered painting, we know of four other depictions of Cleobis and Biton by Blanchet (see L. Galacteros-de Boissier, Thomas Blanchet, Paris, 1991, pp. 358-9, nos. P 144-146bis). The first, in the National Gallery at the Palazzo Corsini in Rome, can be distinguished by a less frontal view, with the landscape playing a more important role to the detriment of the architecture and ruins. Much closer to our painting is the version in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. The small differences are in the landscape, with its less dramatic lighting and the absence of the very large statue of Apollo. Two other works – one in the Palazzo Ruspoli in Rome and the other in a private collection – have much less affinity with this painting. A drawing in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm was originally thought to relate to the painting in that same museum but is clearly preparatory to our painting. Again one sees the statue of Apollo, the classical temple and, in the background, the seascape.
Having spent time in the workshop of Simon Vouet, Blanchet journeyed to Rome where he enjoyed considerable success among collectors. In 1655 he settled in Lyon, becoming Premier Peintre there in 1675. According to Jacques Thuillier, he became ‘a sort of Le Brun for the City of Lyon,’ decorating the Town Hall and the Abbey des Dames de Saint-Pierre (now the Musee des Beaux-Arts). Nevertheless, he always kept his contacts with Paris and was, for example, commissioned to execute the 1663 ‘May,’ the Rapture of Saint Philippe, now in the museum in Arras. Also, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting in 1676. His art, which according to the writer Michel Hilaire was ‘full of enthusiasm and strangeness of style,’ is an example of the diversity of French painting in the seventeenth century, not limited to Paris.