After receiving initial training in his native Bordeaux, Alaux entered the studio of François-André Vincent (1746–1816) in 1807, followed by a period as a student of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833). He was awarded the Prix de Rome in the category of History Painting in 1815, which enabled him to spend the years 1816–20 as a pensionnaire
of the Académie de France à Rome, and he largely remained in Italy until 1824. Although he was attracted to the genre of landscape, producing portfolios of lithographs and contributing to Baron Taylor’s Voyages pittoresques
(1820–78), Alaux became better known for historical and allegorical scenes. He achieved official success at the Salon of 1824 and executed commissions for the Louvre, Versailles, and Fontainebleau. King Louis-Philippe (reigned 1830–48) named him court painter, and he was Director of the Académie in Rome from 1847 until 1852.
The present work is one of at least four that Alaux is known to have produced, which portray individuals in their quarters at the Villa Medici, seat of the French Academy in Rome, where pensionnaires
(residents) were quartered on the third floor of a wing facing the garden. Painted in 1817, it depicts the painter Léon Pallière playing a guitar in his bedroom. The small door on the far right, largely cut off by the edge of the canvas, leads to an adjoining studio. None of the works decorating the walls has been identified, although there are some academies on the left wall and a Madonna and Child to the left of the window. The multi-figured compositions are evocative of some of Pallière’s history paintings, such as his 1812 Rome-prize-winning Ulysses and Telemachus Slaying Penelope’s Suitors
(École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris) or Tobias Restoring Sight to his Father
(Salon of 1819, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux). Yet it is the view through the window toward the garden, with the San Gaetano Pavilion in its northwest corner and Monte Mario beyond, that holds the viewer’s attention.
Pallière’s residency should have lasted from 1812 to 1816, but he was granted an additional year to participate in the redecoration of Santissima Trinità dei Monti, the French church adjacent to the Villa Medici (see Henry Lapauze, Histoire de l’Académie de France à Rome
, Paris, 1924, vol. 2, p. 130). Thus, at the time the present portrait was made, Pallière was engaged in painting the Flagellation of Christ
(in situ; study, The Met, 2003.42.43
A slightly smaller painting by Alaux (private collection, France), also dated 1817, shows François-Edouard Picot, the 1813 Rome Prize winner, in his studio. The third in this group (Musée Ingres, Montauban), dated 1818, depicts J.-A.D. Ingres, a former pensionnaire
, with his new wife in their apartment in the via Margutta, not far from the Villa Medici. It may have been given to Ingres in exchange for Ingres's portrait of Alaux (private collection; see Hans Naef, Die Bildniszeichnungen von J.-A.-D. Ingres
, 1977–80, vol. 4, pp. 424–25, no. 226, ill.). It seems likely that the Pallière and Picot portraits were also gifts to the respective sitters and that they descended through their families. If this was the case, then The Met's picture returned to Alaux in 1827, when he married Pallière’s widow: the two painters had known one another since their youth (Naef 1977–80, vol. 2, p. 283). The fourth work in this group, dated 1819, is a presumed portrait of Henriette-Ursule Claire Thévenin, daughter of the history painter Charles Thévenin (1760–1839), who was then director of the French Academy in Rome (private collection, on loan to the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., in 2019). The scholar Michael Brookmeyer identified a work by Alaux as a self-portrait ("Jean Alaux [1785–1864]: Sa vie et son oeuvre," MA thesis, Université de Paris IV – Sorbonne, 1980, vol. 2, p. 7, pl. 14), but it has not yet been possible to confirm whether the work in question is a fifth work or a mistaken reference to the painting in The Met (see Provenance).
Alaux's portraits are distinctive in that they show the young artists with all the appurtenances of their evocatively bohemian lives; this format would quickly be followed by his friend, the 1817 laureate Léon Cogniet (Self-Portrait
, 1818, Cleveland Museum of Art), and by later residents of the Villa Medici, such as Horace Vernet (Self-Portrait
, 1832, Cleveland Museum of Art). The emergence of these paintings as a group contributes to our appreciation of the physical circumstances of the lives of French artists working in Italy in the early nineteenth century. The expressive potential of a portrait in an interior with a view through a window to a landscape beyond was first examined in a now classic article by Lorenz Eitner ("The Open Window and the Storm-Tossed Boat: An Essay in the Iconography of Romanticism," Art Bulletin
37 [December 1955], pp. 284–85) and further explored in the exhibition "Rooms with a View," held at The Met in 2011.
The neat harmony which exists between the three main elements of The Met's picture—portrait, interior, and view through the window—belies its connection to the increasingly popular plein-airism, the practice of sketching landscapes out of doors. In 1819, Alaux and Cogniet would join Achille-Etna Michallon (1796–1822; Prix de Rome in 1817 for Historical Landscape), the future teacher of Corot, for a sketching trip to the Bay of Naples.
Tinterow and Miller 2005; updated by Asher Ethan Miller 2014