1852-1929 | French
The Burial of Manon Lescaut
Signed, inscribed and dated “P. A. J. DAGNAN-BOUVERET, Réduction d’après l’original exposé au Salon de 1878 Paris, Sep-Oct 1878”
Oil on canvas
This dramatic composition by French Romantic painter Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret represents the artist’s first public success as an artist. Based upon Abbé Prévost’s famed novel The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut, a larger version of the work earned him a third-class medal at the 1878 Paris Salon. Unfortunately, the Salon painting disappeared in the years that followed its exhibition, but the artist painted this smaller version, described by him in an inscription beneath his signature as a “reduction of the original.”
Dagnan-Bouveret’s showing of the work in 1878 marked his ascendancy as an in-demand painter of modern genre scenes — those based on popular culture rather than the historicism preferred by his teacher and mentor, Jean-Léon Gérôme. In The Burial of Manon Lescaut, the artist captures a dramatic scene as Manon’s distraught lover, des Grieux, digs his beloved’s grave and has resolved to follow her in death. The tragic tale of Manon and des Grieux was well known during Dagnan-Bouveret’s lifetime; it inspired at least three other novels as well as innumerable artworks, ballets, operas, films and even a Japanese jazz opera and pop song. The novel’s author, the Abbé François Prévost, had a fascinating story himself. Originally entering the priesthood, he was removed from his position for misconduct and fled to Amsterdam, where he penned the present novel, among many others.
Its subject was well suited to the Romantic canvases of Dagnan-Bouveret. Set in France and Louisiana, the story follows the tale of the Chevalier des Grieux and his lover, Manon Lescaut. Published in 1731, the novel was highly controversial during its time, and soon after its publication, it was banned in France. Des Grieux was a young seminary student of noble birth who fell tragically in love with the enigmatic courtesan Manon. When Manon is deported to New Orleans on the charge of prostitution, des Grieux follows her; once they arrive, they pretend to be married, but Manon is pursued by the governor’s nephew. Des Grieux challenges the man to a duel and, believing he murdered him, soon after flees from the city with Manon. Dagnan-Bouveret captures a dramatic moment from the novel’s conclusion after Manon has succumbed to death in the “desert” outside of New Orleans from either exposure or exhaustion. Des Grieux, maddened by grief, resolved to bury her where she fell and, after digging a hole in the soft sand, lay down beside her to await his own demise.
Dagnan-Bouveret used his own brother as a model for des Grieux, and the expression of anguish he captures on the figure’s face embodies the emotional impact championed by the Romantic movement. The final work shown at the Salon brought him considerable public acclaim, as well as his first contact with the firm of Goupil et Cie, major art dealers who promoted their clients' works through reproduction. The painting also provided a direct inspiration for his contemporary, Maurice Leloir, who copied the figure of des Grieux in his composition on the same subject. Today, his version of the work is held in the Dahesh Museum of Art (New York).
Born in 1852, Dagnan-Bouveret, the son of a tailor, was brought up by his maternal grandfather, whose name, Bouveret, he added to his own. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the studio of Alexandre Cabanel, after which he became a favored student of Jean Léon Gérôme. Both his ambition and talent were encouraged by Gérome, resulting in an impressive first Salon painting — his large-scale Atalanta, a mythological scene based on the heroine-huntress of the same name. Presented at the 1875 Salon, the work later was bought by the state and sent to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Melun, where it remains today. It was a remarkable coup for such a young artist. Just three years later, he presented Manon Lescaut, cementing his reputation as an artist of import. Today, works by the painter can be found in important museum collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.) and the Hermitage (St. Petersburg), among others.
Canvas: 27 3/4“ high x 39 1/2” wide
Frame: 37 3/4“ high x 49 7/8” wide
Against the Modern – Dagnan-Bouveret and the Transformation of the Academic Tradition, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, and Rutgers University Press, Brunswick, New Jersey and London, 2002, by G.P. Weisberg, pp. 48-49, 141
Dagnan-Bouveret: Les couleurs de sa vie, 2007, by D. Sassi