Monday, March 15, 2010

Liberated by Art

One of the great stories about the redemptive power of art can be found in Vasari’s life of Filippo Lippi. Vasari tells how Lippi was captured by Barbary pirates while out sailing off Ancona, and held as a slave in Algeria for 18 months. At his lowest ebb, Filippo Lippi plucked a charred stick from the ashes of a fire, and drew a portrait of his master on the wall—thus earning his freedom through his art.
         There doesn’t seem to be any historical basis for this tale, but of course the truth of a story does not lie in factual accuracy. This episode was bound to appeal to artists themselves, and in 1819 Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret exhibited a painting based on it in the Salon de Paris. The story haunted Bergeret’s imagination, and nearly 20 years later he made an etching of the same subject, titled in the plate Philippo Lippi Esclave à Alger fait le portrait de son Maître qui en récompense lui donna sa liberté. There is also a pen-and-ink drawing of the scene in the Peabody Collection, Maryland (see an illuminating essay on this by Cheryl K. Snay here). The whereabouts of the painting are unknown.

Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, Filippo Lippi esclave à Alger fait le portrait de son Maître
Etching, 1838

This is one of three etchings I have by Bergeret, the others being a portrait of Andrea del Sarto, probably after a self-portrait by the artist, and a sulky lion guarding a half-gnawed bone. All three were published by the revue L’Artiste in 1864, the year after Bergeret’s death.

Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, Andrea del Sarto
Etching, date unknown, published 1864

Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret was born in Bordeaux in 1772. He studied in the ateliers of both François-André Vincent and Jacques-Louis David. Bergeret achieved a fair degree of artistic success. His paintings were bought by Napoleon, who also commissoned designs for Sèvres porcelain, and drawings for the bas-reliefs on the colonne Vendôme celebrating his victory at Austerlitz. But although Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret exhibited regularly at the Salon de Paris from 1806 to 1853, he never achieved the status of his fellow-students in David’s studio, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and François Marius Granet. He seems to have ended up bitter and disillusioned about the artistic life.

Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, Le roi du désert
Etching, date unknown, published 1864

As a printmaker, Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret is remembered as one of the pioneer lithographers, perhaps the first fine artist to really understand the possiblities of the medium. There was an exhibition of The Lithographs of Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret at the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio in 1982. Bergeret’s etchings seem much less known.

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