Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Death of Harmonia

Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre (French, Paris 1714–1789 Paris)
ca. 1740–41
Oil on canvas
77 1/2 x 58 1/4 in. (196.9 x 148 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry N. Abrams, by exchange, 1969
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 615
Harmonia, the daughter of Gelon II, king of Syracuse, was threatened by conspirators. Her governess tried to save her by exchanging her clothes with those of a slave girl, who, dressed as a princess, was murdered. Moved by the girl’s courage, Harmonia revealed her identity and was put to death in 214 B.C.
The picture was engraved by Charles Nicolas Cochin I in 1751 and was much praised when it was exhibited at the Salon later in the same year. Toward the middle of the eighteenth century, historical subjects with moral overtones were again coming into fashion.
Pierre, born in 1714, placed first in the Prix de Rome competition of 1734 and spent five years in Italy. When he returned to Paris he rose speedily through the ranks of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture: admitted to consideration for membership in 1741, he was received in 1742, and appointed assistant professor in 1744 and professor in 1748. Pierre was able and socially and politically adept. Previously, his work had been described as uneven and even lacking in originality, but much of it is lost, and recent scholarship (Lesur and Aaron 2009) has demonstrated that he was not simply a facile late rococo painter, but able in various genres, and an occasional innovator and precursor of neoclassicism. For this agenda, the present picture is symptomatic.

The subject is an unusual one. Harmonia, the daughter of King Gelon II of Syracuse, risked death at the hands of conspirators who had already killed other members of her family. Her governess tried to save her by exchanging her clothes with those of a slave girl of the same age, who, dressed as a princess, was murdered in her stead. Inspired by the girl’s courage, Harmonia revealed her identity and was also assassinated. Her death, which must have been understood as emblematic of heroism in antiquity, seems to have occurred in 214 B.C. Here Harmonia, seated in an eighteenth-century armchair, wears the white draperies that were thought appropriate for a young Greek or Roman woman. The body of the slave, eyes closed, face discolored in death, lies at her feet. The figure of the princess is very large in proportion to the size of the canvas. The soldier in antique armor gestures violently, grasping the dagger that momentarily will be the cause of her death.

Charles Nicolas Cochin I (1688–1754) had engraved the canvas by January 1751 and later in the year it was exhibited at the Paris Salon, where it was well received. The livret described the subject and also identified the artist’s source as Valerius Maximus, who was a Roman historian and moralist writing in the first decades of the first century A.D. According to one Salon critic, the picture had been painted "depuis plusieurs années," that is, several years earlier. The impressive size of the work was appropriate to both the Salon and the artist’s ambitions: Pierre would be the last to serve as first painter to the king and the final director of the Académie royale, which would be disbanded in 1793.

[Katharine Baetjer 2012]
abbé Rivière (until 1813; his estate sale, Maison des Augustins de la place des Victoires, Paris, April 26, 1813, no. 95, for Fr 41.95); private collection, France (until 1959; sold to Wildenstein); [Wildenstein, Paris and New York, 1959–69; sold to MMA]
Paris. Salon. 1751, no. 35.

New York. Wildenstein & Co. "Gods & Heroes: Baroque Images of Antiquity," October 30, 1968–January 4, 1969, no. 27 (lent anonymously).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Patterns of Collecting: Selected Acquisitions, 1965–1975," December 6, 1975–March 23, 1976, unnumbered cat.

[comte de Caylus]. "Exposition des ouvrages de l'Académie Royale de Peinture, faite dans une des sales du Louvre le 25 août 1751." Mercure de France (October 1751), p. 165 (Collection Deloynes, vol. 4, no. 50, p. 8; McWilliam 1991, no. 0069), comments on the successful depiction of both a completed action and one taking place; states that the picture was painted several years earlier.

[Charles-Antoine Coypel]. Jugemens sur les principaux ouvrages exposés au Louvre, le 27 août 1751. Amsterdam, 1751, pp. 17–18 (Collection Deloynes, vol. 4, no. 51; McWilliam 1991, no. 0068), observes that the painting is full of fire, but the subject is not clearly laid out, the draperies are too tormented, and the light too even; notes that it is from the painter's earliest period.

Explication des peintures, sculptures, et autres ouvrages de messieurs de l'Académie Royale . . . Exh. cat.Paris, 1751, p. 22, no. 35 (Collection Deloynes, vol. 4, no. 49), provide a description of the story, identifying the source as Valerius Maximus.

Jean Locquin. La peinture d'histoire en France de 1747 à 1785: Étude sur l'évolution des idées artistiques dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1912, pp. 186, 245 [reprint, 1978, pp. 186, 245, pl. 26], notes that it was engraved by C.-N. Cochin.

Marcel Roux. Inventaire du fonds français, graveurs du XVIIIe siècle. Vol. 4, Paris, 1940, p. 658, under no. 317.

Henry Bardon. "Les peintures a sujets antiques au XVIIIe siècle d'après les livrets de Salons." Gazette des beaux-arts 61 (April 1963), pp. 220, 232, 241.

Claus Virch. "Reports of the Departments." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 29 (October 1970), pp. 76–77, ill.

Everett Fahy. "New European Paintings Galleries." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 30 (October 1971), p. 59.

Anthony M. Clark in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1965–1975. New York, 1975, p. 88, ill.

Monique Halbout and Pierre Rosenberg. "Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre's 'The Adoration of the Shepherds'." Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 56, no. 3 (1978), pp. 175–76 n. 22, find in it an advance in Pierre's art, possibly inspired by the criticism of La Font de Saint-Yenne published in 1747; note that Cochin's plate is in the Chalcographie of the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, p. 364, fig. 659.

Eric M. Zafran. The Rococo Age: French Masterpieces of the Eighteenth Century. Exh. cat., High Museum of Art. Atlanta, 1983, p. 55.

Jean-Luc Bordeaux in The Rococo Age: French Masterpieces of the Eighteenth Century. Exh. cat., High Museum of Art. Atlanta, 1983, p. 19.

Colin B. Bailey. The First Painters of the King: French Royal Taste from Louis XIV to the Revolution. Exh. cat., Stair Sainty Gallery. New York, 1985, pp. 109, 142, no. 150 (inventory), ill., mentions the "brilliant technique and mastery of composition which he lost in some of his later works".

William McAllister Johnson. "La gravure d'histoire en France au XVIIIe siècle (II)." Revue de l'art no. 100 (1993), pp. 23–24, fig. 20, comments that it was unusual for the engraving to have been made before the painting appeared at the Salon.

Alisa Luxenberg in The Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 24, New York, 1996, p. 773, notes that it was enthusiastically received and remarks that it may be the only depiction of this subject painted prior to the revolution; observes that "the densely packed, bulky figures suggest a Rubensian or Bolognese model".

Joseph Baillio et al. The Arts of France from François Ier to Napoléon Ier. Exh. cat., Wildenstein & Co., Inc. New York, [2005], p. 78.

Nicolas Lesur and Olivier Aaron. Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, 1714–1789: premier peintre du roi. Paris, 2009, pp. 5, 9, 13, 33–34, 56, 60, 72–73, 80, 179, 212, 221, 227, 232, 263, 289, 292, no. 24, ill. pp. 81 (color) and 221, date it about 1740–41; extend the provenance back to 1813; mention a copy after the soldiers' heads (private collection, Paris) and a Chelsea ware vase with this composition in reverse (British Museum, London).

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