Pallière, a pupil of François-André Vincent, was awarded the Prix de Rome for history painting in 1812. The course of his progress in Rome would be affected by the fall of Napoleon and Louis XVIII’s assumption of the throne in 1815. In 1816, the comte de Blacas, Ambassador to the Holy See, sponsored the restoration and rededication of Santissima Trinità dei Monti, the church long patronized by the Bourbons that rises from the Spanish Steps. Blacas also arranged with Charles Thévenin, director of the Académie de France à Rome, for current pensionnaires to create works of art for the church, located next door to the Académie’s headquarters, the Villa Medici. Pallière’s original term of study was thus extended by one year to enable him to complete the commission. In addition to Pallière, the original roster of participating painters included Jean-Baptiste-Auguste Vinchon, Henri-Joseph de Forestier, François-Édouard Picot, Jean Alaux, and Jean-Baptiste Thomas. Ultimately the last three did not contribute, but one former pensionnaire who did was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
This painting is a study for Pallière’s Flagellation, the only altarpiece from the commission that remains in Santa Trinità today, in the chapel dedicated to Saints Jerome and Henry. (It is comparable in size to Forestier’s Christ Healing a Boy Possessed by Demons, 308 x 215 cm [approx. 10 x 7 feet], now in the Musée Henri-Martin, Cahors, and Ingres’s Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter, 280 x 217 cm [approx. 9 x 7 feet], in the Musée Ingres, Montauban.) Except for its greater detail and high finish, the final canvas hardly deviates from the sketch apart from the addition of two trees. The study was probably completed before July 1, 1817, when Thévenin reported that the altarpiece was underway (letter to Joseph-Henri-Joachim Lainé, Archives, Académie de France à Rome, box 23, fol. 72); it was installed by the end of the year. Religious painting had been trumped by subjects drawn from recent history during the Empire; as a model for this composition Pallière may have turned for inspiration to the Renaissance fresco by Sebastiano del Piombo in the Roman church of San Pietro in Montorio (although the subject had appeared for centuries with little compositional variation). The frieze-like arrangement of figures in a shallow architectural setting that gives way to a landscape is a construction that had long been adopted for historical subjects.
The red and blue garments and Phrygian cap of Christ’s tormentor at the right have been plausibly interpreted as an implication of the violent excesses of the revolution of 1789–94 (see, for example, Laura Hickman Neis, Ultra-Royalism and Romanticism: The Duc de Blacas’s Patronage of Ingres, Delacroix, and Horace Vernet, Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1987, p. 176). His sympathies may have been more nuanced; whatever the case, at this juncture early in the Restoration, Pallière was responding to a political dilemma faced by many young artists who had come of age under the Empire.
[2013; adapted from Miller 2013]