Ernest Hébert (1817 - 1908)

Lot 304: Ernest August Antoine Hébert French, 1817-1908 , La Mal'aria oil on canvas


November 14, 2007
London, United Kingdom

More About this Item

Description: signed Hébert c.r. oil on canvas
Dimensions: 56.5 by 81cm., 22¼ by 32in.
Provenance: Comte Gabriel de Putecotte de Reneville
Sale: Christie's, London, 16 June 1995, lot 129
Purchased by the present owner at the above sale
Notes: The present work is a réduction of Hébert's highly acclaimed Salon submission of 1850 La Mal'aria (now in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay). It is likely that Comte Gabriel de Putecotte de Reneville obtained the painting from the artist, possibly through the Paris dealer M. Weill who commissioned four smaller versions of the Salon painting, of which one version is now in the collection of the Musée Hébert, La Tronche, and another in the Musée Condé, Chantilly. A highly influential early Symbolist painting, La Mal'aria was one of Hébert's most important compositions and earned him a coveted gold medal at the 1850 Salon, ensuring him a long and successful 'official' career. In his discussion of the Salon version, the art critic Delécuze considered La mal'aria a seminal allegory of its time: 'This work is as representative of the second half of the 19th century as the raft of the Medusa is for the first ...' (Delécluze, Exposition des artistes vivants, Paris, 1850, p. 34). Inspired by the Roman Campagna, Hébert's depiction of a peasant family leaving the disease-ridden Latium marshlands can be interpreted as portraying the soul's path to human redemption. The soul's release in death, as represented by the languid journey of the mythic boat, is a key image in symbolism, stemming no doubt originally from Homer's Odyssey and the passage across the Nile from Karnak to the valley of the Dead. However, the iconography of La mal'aria also contains many emblems of hope. These include the ray of sunshine breaking through the sky and the presence of swallows (symbols of human redemption), the infant, the faint outline of a church steeple, the madonna and child icon in the corner of the boat, and the boatman guiding his passengers away from danger towards life.

In his seminal collection of poems, Emaux et Camées, Théophile Gautier eulogised about La Mal'aria:

When you capture the Maremme, you capture its febrile beauty
In the reed beds, where the lost buffalo strayed, bellowing
One's eyes follow with delight the mystical barque
and one longs for it to settle at Cervera.

Much more than that wild sunburnt creation, that laboured
Offering of Leopold Robert, I like this version of Italy.
Palid and enchanting, itself a sweet reflection of your own heart
My melancholy Hébert

Hébert, who was the Director of the French Academy at Villa Medici in Rome from 1867 until 1873, and again from 1885 until 1890, was a key influence on the so-called Deutsch-Römer, German speaking artists such as Arnold Böcklin (see lot 253) and Anselm Feuerbach, who emigrated to Italy, as well as on the English and Italian painters Frederic Lord Leighton, William Blake Richmond, Giovanni Costa and Giulio Aristide Sartorio.
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