2X18KK0 The Oath of the Ancestors, 1822 Guillaume Guillon-Lethiere
On Art

A neglected radical

Guillaume Guillon-Lethière was an artistic and social pioneer

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The two most famous names emanating from the French Caribbean during the years of the Revolution and Napoleonic wars were Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (better known as the Empress Joséphine) and Toussaint Louverture, a former slave turned revolutionary leader who fought for Haitian independence. There were others too, including one of Toussaint’s brothers-in-arms, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the sang-mêlé (mixed-race) general and father of the novelist Alexander. In the world of French art, at this febrile time, there was also a figure of importance, who has since slipped from view: Guillaume Guillon-Lethière.

Lethière (1760-1832) was born in Guadeloupe in 1760, one of the three sons of Pierre Guillon, a White French plantation owner and king’s prosecutor, and a freed slave mother — black, mulatto or quadroon — Marie-Françoise (called “Pepaye”). As such Lethière’s status was hedged around by legal strictures. 

Although the system of plaçage — the civil union of white European men with colonial women of colour — was long established, interracial marriage was tacitly discouraged until 1792, when the Revolutionary government lifted all restrictions: they were reimposed in 1803 under Napoleon. The Code Noir, which regulated the lives of both freed and enslaved people within the French dominions was not abolished until 1794. 

Furthermore, in 1777, Louis XVI had issued an edict closing ports to black and mulatto immigrants on the grounds that there were already too many in France and that when they returned to the colonies “impregnated with the spirit of ideas of independence and insubordination” they were more “nuisances than useful”.

Nevertheless, at the age of 14, Lethière accompanied his father to France and joined the academy of Jean-Baptiste Deschamps in Rouen. It helped his assimilation that his looks did not reflect his origins. As his student and friend Ingres later recalled, “because of his appearance, he could easily pass for a White, which he never tried to do elsewhere”. He also added the name “Lethière” — supposedly from “letier” (third, denoting his status as a “third son”) — and accrued the nickname “l’Américain” too.

Lethière shortly moved to Paris and the studio of François Doyen, who would later become a favourite of Catherine the Great. There he began a rapid artistic ascent. Specialising in the nascent style of Neoclassicism — crisp outlines, didactic content, and influenced by antiquity — he came second in the Prix de Rome of 1784 and entered again two years later. Although he did not win, he impressed sufficiently to be granted a scholarship to travel to Italy and study at the Académie de France in Rome. While there he followed his father’s example and had an illegitimate child. 

As a regular exhibitor at the Salon, Lethière built a reputation as a competitor to Jacques-Louis David, the leading Neoclassicist. Both artists ran successful studios and painted allegories and Classical histories that were intended to be read as commentaries and exhortations for the revolutionary times. As the men competed to become the leading public painter in France their respective pupils turned partisan, disparaging their peers in the opposite camp. The keenness of the two painters’ rivalry later manifested itself in David’s adherence to Napoleon and Lethière’s to Napoleon’s recalcitrant younger brother Lucien Bonaparte. 

Lethière would travel to Spain as Lucien’s art advisor and through his recommendation was appointed director of the Académie de France in Rome — the prestigious finishing school for France’s most promising artists. 

In Rome, Lethière became a highly respected figure, although he barely escaped with his life when he reacted badly to a comment about his moustache made in a café by an army officer which resulted in a fight that left one man dead. It was Lucien’s intercession that saved him from prosecution. The connection between patron and artist was, it seems, more than merely professional; there were rumours that Bonaparte, then in a form of self-imposed exile in Rome, had an affair with Lethière’s wife.

For all the honours that France bestowed on him, Lethière did not forget where he came from

The painter stayed in Rome until 1816, when the returning Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, removed him from his position at the Académie. This was both part of his purging of senior figures from the Bonapartist regime and also because Lethière remained a committed radical. In 1822, for example, he painted a heartfelt if bombastic work, The Oath of the Ancestors, showing two Haitian generals, Alexandre Pétion and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, swearing to oppose slavery and defend their island’s constitution (Haiti had been a sovereign nation since 1804 and the culmination of Toussaint’s slave revolt and war of independence). The painting was badly damaged in the earthquake of 2010. For all the honours that France bestowed on him, Lethière did not forget where he came from.

Among those honours, when Louis XVIII relented, were a knighthood in the Legion of Honneur, election to the Institute of France, and a professorship at the École des Beaux-Arts. He may not have been the better artist but Lethière remained a central figure in French art, while his adversary David fled the country for Brussels: as a signatory to the death warrant of Louis XVI he was beyond the pale. 

Lethière is being remembered this year with an exhibition at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts that moves to the Louvre in the autumn. He deserves to be brought back from neglect on two fronts; he was a man who embodied not just the shifting artistic currents of his time but its racial eddies too.

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