Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Joan of Arc was born in the village of Domrémy in northeast France in 1412. From about the age of 12 or 13 Joan began to hear voices. Three years later the voices of St Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret entreated her to go to the aid of the dauphin, later Charles VII, who had been disinherited – with the collusion of his parents – by the Treaty of Troyes which granted the throne of France to the infant King Henry VI of England whose troops, together with those of the Burgundians who were allied to the English, occupied most of northern France.
The events of the next few years are the stuff of legend: suffice it to say that Joan met and gained the confidence of the dauphin who gave her a position of influence within his army which then proceeded to win a series of astonishing victories (exemplified by Orléans and later Patay) leading to the capitulation of Rheims where Charles was crowned king in 1429. During a further campaign Joan was captured by the Burgundians who sold her to the English. The English, determined to rid themselves of a potent adversary, had her tried for heresy – the outcome a forgone conclusion. She was burned at the stake on 30 May 1431.
Jules Bastien-Lepage was born near Verdun, not far from Joan’s birthplace on the border between Champagne and Lorraine. The province of Lorraine, together with neighbouring Alsace, was annexed to Germany in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War. Joan re-emerged at this time as a symbol of French unity and determination in the face of adversity so this painting was created as a patriotic clarion call.
Bastien-Lepage has underlined the relevance of the picture to his contemporary audience by deliberately constructing an historically neutral ambience. Joan, dressed in timeless peasant garb is captured in a trance-like state – her glassy-eyed, unfocused stare indicates that she is listening intently to the revelatory voices within her head. The saintly sources of these voices hover behind her, levitating within a faint mandala of heavenly light – St Michael, the celestial field marshal, resplendent in golden armor, is accompanied by St Margaret, whose constituency included farmers and soldiers, and St Catherine of Alexandria. Their surroundings remind us of the simple, bucolic provenance of Joan’s upbringing – Bastien-Lepage went to great lengths to recreate this correctly, visiting her birthplace while researching the picture.
We can see here a fusing of the major strands of French art during the second half of the 19th century. Bastien-Lepage was influenced by the Realism of Millet and Courbet but the painterly strokes he uses for the vegetation and the background could be taken for the work of a follower of the Impressionists. However, in the treatment of the figure of Joan he betrays his training in the more orthodox academicism of his teacher, Alexandre Cabanel, a doyen of the conservative history painting so beloved of the Salon judges. Each part of Joan’s apparel is rendered in perfect detail as is her skin and especially those piercing, distant eyes. This melding of naturalistic conservatism with areas of more impressionistic brushwork was something new and attracted the admiration of such critics as Émile Zola.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1879 John Singer Sargent: In the Luxembourg Gardens, Philadelphia Museum of Art
1879 Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: The Prodigal Son, Washington, National Gallery of Art
1879 Edgar Degas: Mlle La La at the Cirque Fernando, London, National Gallery