When I go to art museums I am always glad to see paintings on themes that I ‘know’ because they have also been made into operas. In Nancy I was especially glad to come across a large canvas entitled “The Destruction of the Palace of Armide”, which vividly illustrates a scene from the opera I had just seen (and would soon see again) at the opera house in Nancy just across the square from the art museum.
This painting from the year 1737 is by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752) and was originally intended as a template or pattern (known in those days as a ‘cartoon’) for a tapestry to be made at the Royal Gobelin Manufactory in Paris. The painting shows the scene where Armide, having been jilted by Renaud, vents her rage and despair by destroying the magic castle where their love affair took place.
Strangely, the flabby aristocrats in this painting are intended to represent Renaud and Armide, while he is still under her spell and they are having their euphoric affair in her magic palace. To me at least, the sickly-looking young man in the painting doesn’t even remotely resemble a bold heroic knight, and the woman looks nothing like a headstrong sorceress. The painting, nonetheless, is entitled Renaud et Armide. It is attributed to an Italian painter named Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764).
On a different opera theme, the museum has two anonymous French paintings from the middle of the 18th century about the story of Dido and Aeneas (Didon et Énée in French), as told by the Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid. This first painting is called La Rencontre de Didon et Énée (The encounter of Dido and Aeneas) and shows their first meeting in Carthage, where Dido is the queen. The second painting shows the death of Dido, when she committed suicide after the departure of Aeneas.
So far I have seen two operas about Dido and Aeneas. One is a huge monumental opera called Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), which I have seen in Leipzig, Mannheim and Frankfurt. The other is a short Baroque opera Dido and Aeneas from the year 1688 or 1689, by the English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). In 2010 we had a beautiful production of Dido and Aeneas in Frankfurt on the main stage, with Paula Murrihy as Dido and Sebastian Geyer as Aeneas.
See also: Paintings on opera themes in the Fine Arts Museum in Bordeaux.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Nancy is on the west side of Place Stanislas, just opposite the opera house. The two buildings have similar façades.
Like all the other buildings around the Place Stanislas, the Museum of Fine Arts has a stone fence along the top of the façade, topped off with decorative vases that look sort of like flower pots or trophy cups. The little white boxes I suppose are surveillance cameras, a discreet 21st century addition.
One of the first things I learned in the museum was that in the 18th century there was a painter called Francesco Giuseppe Casanova (1727-1803), a younger brother of the famous Giacomo Casanova (whom I have mentioned in my post Three opera houses in Prague in connection with the world premiere of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in 1787). This painting is called Promenade en barque (Excursion in a small boat) and was painted by F. G. Casanova around 1788.
Another familiar name was François Boucher (1703-1770), whose paintings I have seen in the Louvre in Paris among other places. This particular one is called Aurore et Céphale, from the year 1733.
The Fine Arts Museum in Nancy also has some works by local artists, such as these terracotta figures by Pierre-Joseph Michel, who was born in Nancy in 1737. These two figures from around 1780 are called Jeune femme couchée lisant une lettre (Young reclining woman reading a letter) and La Bacchante ivre (The drunken bacchante).
The museum in Nancy has one painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). It is called Homme et femme (Man and Woman) and dates from 1971, when he was 90 years old.
An English-language explanatory text mounted next to the painting says: “This painting belongs to the last period of Picasso’s work, perhaps the most vivid and prolific. The artist is ardently pondering about the modes of relationship between man and woman.”
This last period is sometimes known as his “Jacqueline” period, after his wife Jacqueline Roque. The English text says that in this painting she “has passed her hands under the armpits and seems to give him support. Her face emerges out of the same trunk, interwoven with the painter’s. The eyes are at the same level and look in the same direction: the two characters wear one and the same hat. And the man, disguised as a musketeer or matador, seems to play a role.”
A separate text in French points out: “The superimposed faces, painted simultaneously from several angles, and the schematic forms of the hands, invoke a distant memory of the cubism that Picasso invented at the beginning of his career. This work testifies to his ultimate and constant preoccupation two years before his death — love.”
The sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) is represented in Nancy by this piece entitled Psyché transportée par la Chimère, which he made sometime around 1907. The French text explains: “The goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, jealous of Psyché, condemns her to death; her father is ordered to take her to the summit of a mountain where a monster is to devour her. But the god of love, Eros, is charmed by the young girl and has her abducted by Zephyr. This story permits Rodin to play on the opposition between the raw marble symbolizing the mountain and the finished body that emerges from it, accentuating the impression of movement.”
See also: Rodin Museum in Paris.
This “Nymphe” was painted in 1893 by Henri Royer, a painter who was born in Nancy in 1869 and died in Neuilly-sur-Seine (a wealthy suburb of Paris) in 1938. Royer is said to have been very well known during his lifetime, especially for his portraits.
Another local painter, Victor Prouvé (1858-1943) painted Les Voluptueux in 1889. This is an illustration of one of the nine circles of hell as described in the Inferno, one of the three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Victor Prouvé was the father of architect and designer Jean Prouvé (1901–1984).
In the basement of the Fine Arts Museum, some remains of the old city fortifications have been uncovered, restored and preserved. These are walls from the 15th to 17th centuries that were largely destroyed in 1661, but were re-built and extended in eleven years later by the French Commissioner General of Fortifications, Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707).
As I have already mentioned in various places, Vauban was to the 17th century what Kilroy was to the 20th (“Kilroy was here”). Wherever you went in Western Europe, Vauban had already been there and had designed, built, strengthened — or conquered — the fortifications.
In addition to being a strategist, architect and military engineer, Vauban was a widely respected author whose progressive views on religious tolerance and tax reform were influential in the decades leading up to the French Revolution.
Location, aerial view and photo of Place Stanislaus on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Vauban in the Invalides.