“A student of Jean Jouvenet, Vernansal the elder and Louis Boullongne, he won the prix de Rome in 1685 for "Construction of Noah's Ark". He was admitted to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1703.”
Nicolas Bertin’s father was a sculptor who died when Nicolas was only four. Clearly, however, he already had received the artistic gene. He soon became the pupil of Jean Jouvenet (1644-1717) known for his religious scenes commissioned by churches around France, many of which are today in museums.
In the Spring of 1685 Bertin competed for the Prix de Rome, the most prestigious award given out annually by the Academie. It is an extremely grueling process starting with 100 contestants. For the first round they must produce a small oil sketch representing either a biblical or a mythological theme. By the second round the contestants have already been reduced to 20 and must paint a small canvas of a nude based on a male model, demonstrating their understanding of anatomy. In the final round the 12 remaining contestants have to do a drawing and paint a large canvas in 72 days while staying at the Academy with no communication allowed between the artists.
Interestingly enough we are now the proud owners of “The Construction of Noah’s Ark” the painting with which Bertin won first prize. A charcoal drawing, a variant for one of the laborers is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orléans.
When we showed the picture in Paris a while ago, a little boy came through the booth and was fascinated by it. He turned to his mother and said, “I thought Noah’s family helped build the ark”. That is precisely correct but in this case Bertin had to also satisfy the Academie and demonstrate that he could paint people, animals, objects, landscape and the human body, hense the half-naked laborers in the foreground.
So here we see Noah as architect and his sons as contractors with their wives and children watching from nearby. You can see two women watching their husbands and a child taking a break from breast feeding to watch his father and uncles cutting logs in order to build the ark. On the ark itself the cousins are building another story on the ark. Don’t miss the two camels on the right who guarantee us that we are looking at the construction of Noah’s ark and not somebody else’s.
|click to enlarge|
We all have different tastes and so often I find that I like the early work of an artist better than the later work, though this is not always the case. I think it is because the original thoughts and ideas are more creative and have not yet been codified in a formula often formed by the desires of the patron. Yes, today every one blames the contemporary gallery owner for insisting on certain kinds of paintings from their artists’. There is a very good reason, however, and that is the mutual survival of the artist and the gallery. The art dealer knows what his clients will and will not buy. It has always been so, before the galleries it was the patrons, those commissioning the art, be it the sitter or the Church that dictated what they were looking for.
I find it personally exciting to have this prize winner in our gallery!