The Dallas Museum of Art has announced the acquisition, for its European painting collection, of a remarkable life-size triple portrait by the neoclassical painter Jean Antoine Théodore Giroust (1753–1817). The painting, The Harp Lesson (La leçon de harpe), created a sensation when it debuted at the Paris Salon exhibition of 1791. The work is a significant addition to the Museum’s holding of 18th-century portraits and is an important example historically of the art of portraiture. The painting is now on view, included in the Museum’s free general admission, in the DMA’s European Painting and Sculpture galleries on Level 2.
“This monumental painting is a transformative addition to the Museum’s galleries of European art at the end of the 18th century. This is a particularly rich segment of the Museum’s European collection, with historically significant works by artists such as Joseph Vernet, Anne Vallayer-Coster, Jacques-Louis David, and, of course, Giroust himself,” said Olivier Meslay, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs and The Barbara Thomas Lemmon Curator of European Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. “His neoclassical history painting Oedipus at Colonus has been a mainstay of our galleries since its acquisition in 1992, and The Harp Lesson is an equally important addition to the collection for the genre of portraiture.”
Giroust’s large and elegant conversation piece à l’anglaise is a masterpiece of portraiture at the start of the French Revolution. Each of the three sitters would have been a well-known personality to the Salon audience, and the painting is an indelible document of the self-fashioning of the liberal French aristocracy under the National Assembly (1789–1792). It depicts the daughter of Louise Philippe Joseph de Bourbon, duc d’Orléans (1747–1793), the future “Philippe Égalité,” taking a music lesson from her governess, Madame de Genlis, while her English companion, Mademoiselle Paméla, looks on. Giroust’s detailed representation of the sitters, their dress and accessories, and their elegant neoclassical furnishings testifies to the efforts of the duc d’Orléans to craft a public image of his family and retinue as paragons of Enlightenment virtue and progressive cultural tastes.
A full-size replica of The Harp Lesson was produced in 1842 by Jean-Baptise Mauzaisse (1784–1844) for King Louis Philippe, the brother of Mademoiselle d’Orléans. This replica remains in the historical gallery of Versailles. It was once believed that the original canvas had been destroyed during the Revolution of 1848, when it was hanging in the Palais-Royal, but in fact the painting remained the property of the Bourbon Orléans family by descent from 1791 until 1937, when it was sold in Brussels as a “school of David” painting and was acquired by a Belgian collector. The painting remained in his family until 1989, when it was sold at a public auction in Monaco.
Born in Bussy St. Georges, France, in 1753, Antoine Giroust trained in the Paris studio of the leading neoclassical painter, Joseph Marie Vien, alongside his contemporary Jacques-Louis David. Following study in Rome, Giroust was received as a full member of the Academy in 1789 with the painting Oedipus at Colonus, which is also in the DMA collection and on view in the Level 2 galleries. By 1791, he was working almost exclusively for the duc d’Orléans, and in the years that followed his fortunes rose and fell with those of the d’Orléans family.
In 1792, Giroust volunteered for military service as an aide de camp to the duc de Chartres, the eldest son of Philippe Egalité and the future King Louis Philippe. After the duc d’Orléans and his sons were arrested by the Committee of Public Safety in April 1793, Giroust was able to escape to the countryside, where he lived for some years in relative obscurity, near his home town of Vivier. In 1795, Giroust was invited, perhaps at the behest of his former studio-mate David, to be one of the inaugural members of the newly created Institute, as a “non-resident” member since he remained in the countryside. He settled in the eastern province of Lorraine, where by 1800 he was serving as mayor of the town of Serres. His final professional venture as an artist was the exhibition of two history paintings, Éponine et Sabinus and Sainte Godelive, at the Salon of the Year X (1802). Following this exhibition, Giroust largely returned to private life. He passed away in 1817 at his house in Vivier.
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