Exhibitions/ Art Object

A Shipwreck in a Storm

Jean Pillement (French, Lyons 1728–1808 Lyons)
Pastel on gessoed canvas
24 3/4 x 36 in. (62.9 x 91.4 cm)
Pastels & Oil Sketches on Paper
Credit Line:
Gift of Martin Birnbaum, 1956
Accession Number:
Not on view
This pastel, large in scale for Pillement, persuasively suggests the dark, threatening, moisture-laden atmosphere of the storm. The sky occupies an exceptionally large part of the picture, and the artist strictly limited the use of the blues and greens that are typical of his palette to achieve a monochromatic effect. The spectators bear witness to the risk to life, as many who were on board the ship are presumably overcome by the elements. The date appears to be 1782, though 1792 is also possible.
Pillement was born in Lyons, where his father was a designer at La Grande Fabrique, the prestigious Royal silk manufactory. He completed his training in Paris at the Gobelins tapestry manufactory, before departing for Madrid in about 1745, the start of an itinerancy that would characterize his entire career. Pillement painted landscapes, genre scenes, chinoiserie designs, and decorations in Spain, Portugal, France, and London, where he exhibited in the 1760s. By 1763 he was drawing-master to the Imperial family in Vienna. In 1767 Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski (1732–1798), King of Poland, appointed him his personal painter, as Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) would in 1778. Pillement also prepared "One Hundred and Thirty Figures and Ornaments and Some Flowers in the Chinese Style" (1767), a collection of prints of the decorative, genre, and landscape subjects for which he is best known.

A Shipwreck in a Storm typifies the work of Pillement's late years, in Portugal and France, from 1780 onward. The despairing figure with the outstretched arms is the focus of his composition and a stock image from his marine landscapes. Although this pastel has no known pendant, Pillement often painted his marine views (both oils and pastels) in pairs. The first, typically of a seaport, would depict tranquil, benevolent nature; its pendant, by contrast, showed violent storms and shipwrecks. A Shipwreck in a Storm dramatically illustrates the power of nature, evoking sympathy for the human figures caught up in it.

[Katharine Baetjer 2013]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower left): J. Pille[ment] / 17[8]2
Martin Birnbaum, New York (by 1955–56)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Eighteenth-Century Pastels," August 6–December 29, 2013, no catalogue.

Neil Jeffares. Dictionary of Pastellists Before 1800. London, 2006, p. 421.

Katharine Baetjer. "Jean Pillement: Shipwrecks and the Sublime." Metropolitan Museum Journal 51 (2016), pp. 103–4, 108, 110–11 n. 37, Appendix no. 1, fig. 5 (color).

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