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Laurens was a major Salon painter of French historical scenes and one of the Parisian art teachers who attracted two American students to his private studio, according to Weinberg (1991, p. 156): Frederic Porter Vinton, and Charles Yardley Turner (1850-1919). At least sixty more, however, would have benefitted from his instruction at the Académie Julian, where he could be found beginning in 1884. In fact, Laurens was the most sought after French teacher among Americans. Alphaeus Cole (1976, p. 114) stated that Laurens stressed the study of anatomy: “He considered it a most important asset to an artist’s knowledge, especially when drawing figures in action from imagination.”
Laurens, born at Fourquevoux (Haute-Garonne), France on 30 March 1838, studied under Léon Cogniet, who was a student of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (trained by Jacques-Louis David, the leading French neoclassicist). Hence, we can establish a solid academic heritage for Laurens, clear back to David. Laurens exhibited The Death of Cato (Musée des Augustins, Toulouse) in the Salon in 1863, the year of the infamous Salon des Refusés. Medals and prizes followed in a predictable manner: a First Medal in 1872, the Légion d’Honneur in 1878 and the coveted Grande Croix in 1900.
Possibly Laurens’ most famous painting is Emperor Honorius, dated 1880 (The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia), a neo-Byzantine historical portrait, whose richness of textures and frontally posed sitter recall Ingres’ controversial portrait of the enthroned Napoleon (Musée de l’Armée, Paris). Milner (1988, p. 214) illustrates The Men of the Holy Office (Musée de Moulins) as another of his finest works. Laurens also executed murals, including decoration in the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, and The Death of Sainte Geneviève in the Panthéon, a neo-baroque, diagonally constructed tableau full of smoke and harsh chiaroscuro. But The Last Moments of Sainte Geneviève is a highly naturalistic, almost photographic rendering of people crowding around the saint’s bed. The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) is pure modern historicism à la Gérôme. Here Laurens sacrificed meaningful dramatic elements by emphasizing the grand but empty setting, in this case, a Medieval hall, in 998 A.D., in which the excommunicated king broods over Bertha of Burgundy, for whom he left his first wife.
In a more modern mode, The Last Moments of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico (1882; The Hermitage, St. Petersburg), the emperor is shown being led to the firing squad. Maximilian, archduke of Austria, had accepted the imperial throne of Mexico in 1864, after the country had been partially conquered by the French. After Maximilian dispersed Benito Juárez’s forces and executed captured prisoners, Napoleon III, pressured by the United States, ordered French troops to withdraw, leaving Maximilian with only a small command. On 15 May 1867 he was overpowered, and executed on 19 June. While Manet’s famous painting in Mannheim (Kunsthalle) illustrates the execution, Laurens created a scene whose staged characters have the permanence of wax figures in a museum tableau. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has The Parting of King Robert and Bertha (1883) and Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor (1886) by Laurens. The painter died in Paris, on 23 March 1921.
D’Igny, Pierre, “The Salon Forty,” Arts and Letters 2 (June 1888), p. 358; Fabre, F., Jean-Paul Laurens. Paris: 1895; Blashfield, Edwin Howland, in John C. Van Dyke, Modern French Masters. New York: Century, 1896; F. Thiollier, L’oeuvre de J.-P. Laurens. Paris: 1905; Eaton, D. Cady, Handbook of Modern French Painting. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1909, pp. 300-304; Warshawsky, Abel, The Memories of an American Impressionist . Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1980, p. 52; Gammell, R. H. Ives, Twilight of Painting. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1946, pp. 59-63; Burollet, Thérèse, “Antidisestablishmentarianism,” in Academic Art, Art News Annual. Ed. Thomas B. Hess and John Ashbery. New York: Collier Books, 1971, pp. 101-109; Cole, Alphaeus, “An Adolescent in Paris: The Adventure of Being an Art Student Abroad in the Late 19th Century.” American Art Journal 8 (November 1976): 111-115; Milner, John, The Studios of Paris: The Capital of Art in the Late Nineteenth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988, pp. 213-214; Fink, Lois Marie, American Art at the Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990, p. 163; Weinberg, H. Barbara, The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and Their French Teachers. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991, pp. 155-156; From Monet to Cézanne: Late 19th Century French Artists. The Grove Dictionary of Art Series. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, pp. 263-265.
Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.