The Mariner's Wife

Attributed to Jean-Augustin Franquelin (French, Paris 1798–1839 Paris)
Oil on canvas
15 3/8 x 18 1/2 in. (39 x 47 cm)
Credit Line:
The Whitney Collection, Promised Gift of Wheelock Whitney III, and Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh, by exchange, 2003

Accession Number:
Not on view
Here, a woman in Italian costume despairs over the fate of her husband, a seaman. Such subjects, which combine the pathos of history painting and the exoticism of foreign cultures, developed out of popular scenes of brigandage. Léopold Robert, one of the originators of this genre, was formerly thought to be the author of this painting (a false signature appears at lower left), which is now attributed to Jean-Augustin Franquelin and dated to the last fifteen years of his life. Appreciated during his lifetime for variations on this very subject painted in the polished technique seen here, Franquelin passed out of fashion after his death—by which time the work of Robert, who died shortly before him, in 1835, was highly sought after.
This painting is consistent in style, technique, and subject matter with others by Franquelin, which were widely collected in France in the 1820s and 30s. Like many artists of his time, Franquelin first aspired to be a history painter, but despite some initial success in this area he began catering to the lucrative trade in cabinet pictures with impeccably painted boudoir scenes and other sentimental subjects. These compositions were exhibited regularly at the Paris Salons and often reproduced as lithographs.

The subject of this work is a woman wearing an Italian costume who, clutching her baby with her left hand and a handkerchief with her right, laments the departure of her seafaring husband. She kneels at a Gothic window, gazing despairingly at the ship that bears him away; mourning jewelry underscores her grief. While this painting’s origins have not been traced, it evidently gained a new lease on life after Franquelin’s death in 1839, which coincided with the climax in popularity of his contemporary Léopold Robert. The latter’s suicide in 1835 had increased demand for his modern Italian genre subjects and stimulated a market for forgeries, which explains the fraudulent Robert signature and inscription on the present work. (There is a small area of overpainting just below it that likely covers the effaced signature of the painting’s true author.) The composition is not based on any known work by Robert (Pierre Gassier, letter dated October 8, 1984, Department of European Paintings files).

The high level of finish, which masks a confident and freely executed underdrawing as well as pentimenti (visible by means of infrared reflectography, or IRR), point to this being an artistically executed painting from the hand of the artist who invented the composition. In addition to the subject matter and general resemblance to works by Franquelin, the treatment of the child and details, notably the textiles, grass, and stone, are entirely consistent with known examples by Franquelin. The author of the only modern study of Franquelin, Lynne D. Ambrosini, accepts the present attribution (verbal communication, February 24, 2012; see "Peasants in French Painting, 1815–1848: The Romantic Roots of the Realist Mode," Ph.D. diss., Insitute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1989), which was first proposed by Wheelock Whitney.

Franquelin executed an entirely different composition on the same theme, La Veuve du marin, which is known through a reproductive lithograph by Julien Vallou-de-Villeneuve (1795–1866; impression in the Bibliothèque nationale de France; cf. Bibliographie de France, December 17, 1825, no. 867).

[Asher Ethan Miller 2013]
Inscription: Inscribed (lower left): L L Robert. / Rome. 1822.
sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris (Me Alain Cardinet, salle 2), April 16–17, 1984, uncatalogued lot, as “Le départ du pêcheur,” by Léopold Louis Robert (sic), to Fischer-Kiener; [Jacques Fischer-Chantal Kiener, Paris, 1984; sold in May to Whitney]; Wheelock Whitney III, New York (from 1984)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850," January 22–April 21, 2013, unnumbered cat. (fig. 61).

Asher Ethan Miller. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 70 (Winter 2013), p. 46, fig. 61 (color).

There are at least two other documented versions of this composition, both approximately the same size, which are mechanical by comparison, vary in small details, and bear the same Robert "signature." In one, which is somewhat amateurish, the female subject’s eye is rather raven-like (art market, Rome, 1980; photo in Department of Europan Paintings files). In the other, her velvet sleeves lack the gold brocade decoration (sale, Galerie Fischer, Lucerne, November 9–13 and 16, 1982, no. 2840, color ill., unsold). There is no known photograph of a reported third version (art market, Paris, 1984).