Prix de Rome, 1787
By Georgia Comte
The opulent salon carre, housed in the Louvre, was fit to burst with chatter. Words ebbed on tidal currents that flowed from one end of the room to the other, so that at any one time, many conversations could be carried intermittently between two or three distinct groups. Among the crowd – the intellectual beaux mondes – there were several prestigious painters and architects. Academicians only, as was traditional. Merit’s arm could only extend so far when one desired to live in Rome on the King’s coin.
The throng swelled when the double doors opened, parting before a group of fresh-faced, haughty students. Though they were mostly between the ages of nineteen and twenty-two, these boys already took on the appearance of full grown men, guided at their tail by a gentleman who had not yet deigned to wipe the charcoal from his fingers. The dark smears had touched the cuffs of his sleeves, dusting them in fine black grime, though he seemed not to notice, or else didn’t care. This was far from his dimly lit studio, which was always packed with easels and students, strewn with canvas and broken pencils.
He had been in the room for no more than a moment, yet his expression was already contorted by a perpetual grimace.
Those present to witness his entrance were familiar with that unfortunate leer. It was not distaste for the institution – though he possessed that in spades – rather, his mouth was set by an obtrusive growth in his cheek that interfered with the movement of his lips. His dark eyes beadily appraised the crowd before they swept briefly, disdainfully, over the walls.
This insouciant man was Jacques-Louis David. He had passed through the hands of old Boucher, who had taught him warmth and feeling, to Vien before becoming an incessant blight on the Royal Academy from there onward. He had entered the Prix de Rome thrice in his own indenture to the academy without success. By the time he won in 1774 the prestige had long worn off. Distaste flowered swiftly in David. His students had inherited both his expert style and cool indifference. The year before had yielded no clear winner simply because all the best entrants were drawn from his crop of nouveau classicists.
For this reason, his name was a sigh on the lips of the few faculty assembled at the foot of Girodet’s sensuous rendition. This year, entrants were to bring to life the execution of Zedekiah’s children ordered by Nebuchadnezzar. It was obvious at a glance that Girodet was a student of David’s – his painting reeked of him. Girodet and the hollow cane he used to smuggle his proofs from David’s studio to his own had been disqualified already. Though he was clearly not yet aware of it.
They avoided greeting David, taking their exit before he could approach, though he made no attempt to.
This didn’t faze the painter, instead he began leading his students around the salon to observe the other works collected there. A boy with mousy overgrown hair extended both hands to take his master’s hat. He was the youngest of the assembled students and, to avoid his older peers, fell into the footprints David left behind. Gros was fresh from the Collège Mazarin, and his indecisiveness was a source of constant frustration both for his teacher and himself. He had entered the artist’s atelier at fourteen, and despite this early intervention, was still lacking the necessary confidence two years on. Aside from his depiction of horses, which remained his favourite subject, Gros had yet to grasp the precepts of classical painting.
Among the others dotted across the cramped salon, David recognized Fragonard and aggressively adjusted his course to avoid him. Though this brought him into contact with his rival, François-André Vincent, standing by his round-faced protégé Meynier. They had met under the tutelage of Vien and been in competition ever since. David and Vincent only exchanged brief, courteous nods. Neither Gros nor any of David’s other students spared a glance for Meynier, who watched them pass in a flurry of dark coats, flushed to the tips of his ears.
“You should have seen Drouais and his Marius. Now there is a painting fit for the Prix de Rome,” David said, his gaze turned toward Gros with the same dispassion. Drouais, David’s very own budding Raphael, was abroad in Italy with two pistols at his waist to ward off brawlers, but he had completed Marius at Minturnae the year before. Since its relocation to Paris for a brief time in January, it was all David would talk about. Gros indulged the habit, perhaps too timid to sneer when his master’s back was turned. The other students, however, exchanged knowing looks.
Girodet, whose bird-boned hands extended to highlight his piece in self-adulation, turned a knowing smirk toward the man at his side. Fabre, the recipient of that feline smile, was a fellow student. He was significantly shorter, with a sharp cleft in his chin that made his serious lips appear almost crooked. He glared at Girodet unabashedly. Both had been near winners the year before, and when no award had been bestowed, their mutual resentment festered.
They had worked for two months on their pieces, isolated in their own respective studios, and now all that remained was the final judgement. David, in the interest of seeming impartial, gave no indication of which he preferred, much to the frustration of both. It was not, after all, up to him. A thinly veiled excuse.
“It received a favourable position, unsurprisingly,” Girodet remarked, earning another steely look from Fabre, who, short of grinding his teeth, had clenched his jaw vice-tight.
“It’s no Marius, though, is it,” Fabre retorted, smug at the faltering of Girodet’s expression.
Drouais was a sore spot for all of them, but no one was more infuriated by the mention of him than Girodet. The competition among David’s students had always been ferocious, exacerbated by their sense of superiority and their masters faint neglect, leaving only each other to turn on. These two were particularly merciless, and Girodet, more paranoid than any other, was sure Fabre had already won David’s favour. This, then, would solve it once and for all.
“I do not see your work anywhere, Fabre. It must simply be lost among the others,” Girodet sniffed, taking a few steps in the opposite direction to escape any possible reply. Fabre only smiled.
David ignored the exchange in favour of examining one of the paintings, high strung, in an exquisitely gilded frame. It bordered offensively on Rococo in the fullness of the figures positioned in the foreground, and it disturbed his classical sensibilities enough that he planted a hand on Gros’ shoulder to urge him on. The Leroux sisters – both recommended to him by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun – were quick to follow, their movement curtailing the remainder of David’s pupils, forcing them into the lesser space at the rear. It was only David’s testimony on the quality of their character that allowed them to stay on at the Academy. They were among the mere handful women in the room that hadn’t come to accompany their husbands.
After a single circuit, David felt he had seen enough. He halted, leaning back against the wall, arms loosely crossed in a faintly impatient gesture. It was a formality. The paintings had already been examined by the faculty, now they were left to await the announcement of winners. The best painters would place, receive the promised bursary, and a position at the French Academy in Rome. It would be one of his students; he had decided as much after looking at the other entries.
Across the salon, Cochin spotted David and his disciples. He hesitated only a moment before coming to stand beside the master wordlessly. Cochin was a painter himself, though better known for his writing and engravings. His countenance was mild, though his wide eyes and long nose gave him the profile of a startled Kentish plover.
Silence fell as the doors opened once again. Finally, the judges emerged from their deliberation, filing out in solemn rows to stand in the very centre of the room. They were headed by Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, acting director, who spoke on the judge’s behalf. Pierre admitted that it had been a very near thing. Two paintings, similar in their execution but vastly different in their composition, had captured the essence of the historical moment exceptionally. However, it was Fabre, not Girodet, who ensnared the imagination of the head academicians.
Fabre visibly crackled, ecstatic. He stepped forward to accept when he was caught by the arm. Girodet, burning beneath his skin, his face ruddy.
“Congratulations,” he said, the word clipped, wrenched from him. Fabre simply nodded, patting his hand in mock sympathy before he passed him by.
Fabre’s insincerity only served to stoke the fire. Girodet whirled around to face his teacher, but David gave nothing away. He simply raised both dark brows. “Perhaps next time.” He was already reaching to take his hat from Gros, as if it were nothing. His nonchalance triggered a Vesuvian eruption in Girodet.
“You knew!” he burst, chest heaving, hands trembling at his sides. David had chosen Fabre. He must have. He had helped in some way, how else? Fabre’s skill was no more honed than his own. His piece had been inharmonious, and with a half of the preparation Girodet himself had. It was not possible. “If it were Drouais-”
“That is more than enough, Girodet,” Cochin interjected before Master and student could squabble, sensing the thunder cloud darkening above David’s head.
It was Girodet who stormed out of the Salon, upending a silver platter piled with diluted wine as he flung the door open. The shattering of crystal made Gros flinch, but David remained marble still.
“Well done, Fabre.”
Image: Le Salon Carre au Musee du Louvre by Giuseppe Castiglione, 1861