The eye of the collector by Jean-luc Ferrand

Brood of cupids, oil on canvas by Henry Pierre PICOU

Tuesday 10 January 2017, by Barbara Cogollos

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In the early 19th century classical antiquity was popular, pushed by the rediscovery of sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum. In this context the Neo-grec movement emerged, breaking free from academic painting: subjects are no more moral, but lighter and reinterpretating freely antiquity. The birth of this movement is signed by the exposition of “The Cock Fight” of Jean-Leon Gerôme at the Salon of 1847, painting praised by critics. So Th. Gautier creates the term “Neo-grec”, making of Gerôme the leader of this movement that touches all artistic disciplines.
Neo-grec painters were formed in the workshop of Paul Delaroche and then sent to Charles Gleyre, who were both Gerôme’s masters. The movement desacralized academic painting and insisted more on decorative aspects. It was in perfect harmony with the taste of the rising bourgeoisie that owned this way the topics of antiquity in order to establish its new social status.

This oil on canvas signed and dated 1878 is by Henry Pierre PICOU, french artist, born in Nantes on February 27th 1824, and died on July 17th 1895. Became part of the neo-grec movement, he is one of the most prominent painters of the Second Empire.
Early beginning to practice the craft of painter, his parents brought him at the age of twelve first into the workshop of Delaroche, then of Charles Gleyre, and then into the Ecole Royale de Beaux-Arts in Paris. He becomes friend with Jean-Leon Gerôme and Gustave Boulanger, with whom he shares a phalanstery of artists in rue de Fleurus.
Picou’s career is launched since he left the Ecole and exposed at the Salon of 1847, while Gerôme exposes his “The Cock Fight”.
In 1853 he gets the second prize of Rome with his painting “Jesus driving the money changers from the temple”.
He works in a huge workshop of the Magenta boulevard in Paris, where he completed several paintings on commission. Furthermore he realized a fresco for the church of Saint Roch in Paris in 1854 and some of the sumptuous paintings adorning the mansion of the marquise de la Païva, 25 Avenue des Champs Elysées, where we can still admire his canvas. He begins a successful career as portraitist and genre painter and exposes at every Salon works inspired by life under the Second Empire or by historical topics, characterized by a strong composition and a very refined inspiration.
As time passes, his style becomes much wiser and, if he goes on painting the female body, we consider his style as a happy medium between Courbet’s realism and the symbolism of Puvis de Chavanne. He continues however his researches on the representation of antiquity up to the end of his life.

PICOU’s work is marked by a moving humanity. Trained in every painting techniques, he puts his humanistic sensibility and culture at service of his art. For this man, educated in classical philosophy and fond of the poetry of his time, painting is a way to express values and an art of living, combining intellectual exigencies and sensual exaltation.
Some of his contemporaries reproached him of this awesome, elitist and exalted conception of art against mediocrity and bourgeois utilitarism.
Our oil on canvas is a good exemplar of this neo-grec anti academic aesthetics.
At the feet of a temple decorated by a dentil and an animal masque on its basement, three Grace as declinations of beauty are around a fluff upholstered nest and two recently hatched eggshells. They have in their arms two mischievous putti, while Cupid observes the scene from the top-right of the composition, leaning on a pillar. Behind him we guess the silouette of the statue of Artemis of Ephesus, weakly illuminated by the glowing of a brazier.

At the starched and edifying antiquity of traditional neoclassical painters, Picou opposes the living and optimist scene of a charming composition freely reinterpretating antiquity.
The iconography of this scene is far to be identified, but the artist seems to have chosen to represent the birth of cupids, not necessarily the children of Venus and Mars, with the support of the three Graces (Aglaea, Euphrosyne and Thalia), under the watchful gaze of Cupidon (represented blind, his hand on his chin, with his traditional attributes: bow, quiver, his crown of roses and the fire of passion) and the protection of Artemis, as goddess of fertility et abundance.

In support of this hypothesis, we can note that an oil on canvas of PICOU entitled “A brood of Cupids” (“Une nichée d’Amours”), about which we have not so many informations, was sold in Paris on Mars 9th 1891. Could we compare our painting to this mysterious work? The track is interesting, and it becomes more and more interesting because we know that at the Salon of 1878 he exposed two more paintings on the topic of love, entitled “Time lets Love pass away” and “Love lets Time pass away”.
Whatever it may be, the artist makes here an intellectual topic of pleasure intended for the delectation of senses, by the intensity of the look of characters, the brightness of colours, the velvety of skin, the roundness of shape.
Praised by his contemporaries, a great number of PICOU’s works are diffused in the United States and in Great Britain as lithography.
Nowadays, PICOU is exposed in several prestigious museums: the Dahesh Museum of Art in the State of New York, the Museum of Beaux-Arts in Nantes, where an exposition was consecrated to him in 2014, or the Orsay Museum.
In a very good condition, this work is a very remarkable witness of artist’s ability in painting these voluptuous naked women, reason why we still collect his works abundantly.

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