These recently re-united paintings are the most ambitious surviving baroque ceiling sketches made in Britain in the early eighteenth century. From the Restoration until the rise of Palladianism in the 1720s decorative history painting formed the preeminent artistic discipline in Britain. It was a field dominated by Continental artists including the Italian Antonio Verrio and the Frenchmen Louis Laguerre and Louis Chéron. The present paintings have recently been identified as being by Chéron having long been attributed to Laguerre. Executed on an unusually grand scale, the sketches were almost certainly preparatory for one of the great interior schemes of the early eighteenth century.
Louis Chéron was born in Paris on 2 September 1660 into a notable French protestant family of artists, the son of a miniature painter and an engraver, and the younger brother of Elizabeth-Sophie Chéron a notable painter and engraver. Chéron trained at the Académie under Charles Le Brun and Noel Coypel, then in Rome from 1676. He twice won the prix de Rome twice, in 1676 and 1678; on the first occasion he received financial help from his sister to visit Italy. His earlier biographer, Dezallier d’Argenville states that Chéron claimed: ‘Quand on lui demandoit qui etoit son maître, il nommoit Raphael.’ Two albums of Chéron’s drawings, many made in Italy, testify to this allegiance, with thirty sheets after Raphael’s frescos in Rome which were, according to Vertue, ‘always much valyed & esteemed amongst the curious.’ Back in Paris he received a number of commissions, notably in 1687 and 1690 from the Guild of Goldsmiths for paintings to be presented in May of those years to the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Studies for the 1687 painting, The Prophecy of Habbakuk (Musée du Louvre).
Chéron decided to leave France, no doubt spurred by the persecution of Huguenots following the revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685. He is recorded in the registers of the Huguenot congregation at the Savoy Chapel in London in 1693 and was naturalized in 1710. His going to London was possibly at the suggestion of Ralph, first earl and later duke of Montague, for whom in 1695 in the recently completed Boughton House, Northamptonshire, he painted a number of ceilings, including those of the saloon and the staircase, with mythological scenes. The album in the British Museum contains six drawings for the drawings at Boughton. He also worked in London at Montague House, at Ditton Park, Buckinghamshire, at Burghley House, Northamptonshire, and in the gallery and little dining-room at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. In 1709 he was one of five artists invited to submit designs for the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.
The present paintings are unusually large sketches made in preparation for what must have been one of Chéron’s grandest decorative cycles. The oil sketches show that the ceilings were to be composed of an illusionistic sky populated by a pantheon of gods. The swirling mass of Baroque figures demonstrates Chéron’s appeal; bringing a Continental language of decoration to English interiors. The sketches seem likely to date from about 1710 but are currently unrelated to a specific project. The first Cupid and Psyche before Jupiter reprises the subject-matter Chéron had used at Boughton on the ceiling of the Little Hall. As at Boughton, the present sketch shows a multitude of figures seated on clouds, on the left hand side the figure of seated Minerva, on the right the figure of Mars and a seated figure of
Mercury; in the centre of the composition Jupiter, with a large eagle at this feet, also identifiable are the figures of Venus, Bacchus and Hercules, Flora and Diana. Chéron’s sketch is structured around architectural elements; Telamons support an entablature and the cloud supporting Venus and her attendants break onto the wallspace, suggesting the scheme was also designed to include the decoration of the rest of the room. Compositionally the sketch of Cupid and Psyche is close to the work Chéron carried out at Burghley, particularly The Marriage of Hercules and Hebe on the ceiling of the Great Hall. The composition and approach – particularly the vertical dynamism - are similar: the seated figure of Jupiter at the centre of the composition is close to the figure of Jupiter at the centre of the Cupid and Psyche before Jupiter.
The ceiling design of The Feast of the Gods is even more architectonic. The assemblage of gods – identical to the figures found in Cupid and Psyche before Jupiter – are shown bursting through a frieze of Telamons supporting an entablature. The riotous composition displays the illusionistic grandeur of Chéron’s most mature compositions. Narratively the pair of designs are closely related and clearly formed part of a programme of decoration for two conjoining rooms. The architectural decoration is also similar in both designs, but the visual emphasis is slightly different. In Cupid and Psyche before Jupiter, the action is more condensed and immediate suggesting the design is for a smaller room than The Feast of the Gods.
These two oil sketches first appeared on the market in June 1957 when they were with Appleby Brothers in London and attributed to James Thornhill. The canvases were with Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox by 1961 when they were sold separately to the great architectural historian John Harris and the eminent bibliophile Anthony Hobson. It was Harris who suggested that the canvases were by Laguerre by the time he lent The Feast of the Gods to the exhibition English Baroque Sketches: The Painted Interior in the Age of Thornhill held at Marble Hill in 1974. The Feast of the Gods was then lent to the important exhibition: Manners & Morals: Hogarth and British Painting 1700-1760 held at the Tate Gallery in 1987 as the single example of a great French Baroque ceiling design from the period. More recently they paintings have been identified as the work of Chéron and The Feast of the Gods has been requested for the Tate’s major Baroque exhibition in 2020 as by Chéron.
These large sketches are two of the most ambitious surviving oil studies made by the most significant decorative history painter in Britain in the early eighteenth century. They neatly illustrate the prevailing fashion for Baroque, illusionistic decoration which dominated British interiors in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Chéron was a highly important figure within the London art world and Vertue’s obituary notice stressed that he was: ‘of an affable good natur’d temper. very communicative of his Art with a plain open sincerity that made him most agreeable & belv’d. living regular & sober.’ Vertue adds after Chéron’s posthumous sale: ‘many sketches for works that he did as several noblemans houses. for the Duke of Montague at Boughton & at Ditton. Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. Duke of Whartons. The Earl of Exeter.’ Suggesting that these two remarkable sketches may ultimately be identified with a great, lost scheme at one of these houses and that the sketches themselves were in Chéron’s studio at his death.
- A-J, Dezallier d’Argenville, Abrégé de la vie des plus fameux peintres, avec leurs portraits gravés en taille-douce, les indications de leurs principaux ouvrages, quelques réflexions sur leurs caractères, et la maniere de connoître les desseins et les tableaux des grands maîtres, Paris, 1762, IV, p.329.
- For a check-list of the contents of the drawings now in the British Museum see E. Croft-Murray & P. Hulton, Catalogue of British Drawings: XVI & XVII Centuries in the British Museum, London, 1960, pp.272-282 and F. Russell, ‘Louis Chéron: A Sale Catalogue’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 130, no. 1023, 1988, pp.464-467.
- Ed. Lionel Cust, ‘Vertue Note Books Vol.III’, The Walpole Society, 1934, vol.22, p.22.
- Ed. Lionel Cust, ‘Vertue Note Books Vol.III’, The Walpole Society, 1934, vol.22, p.28.