The First Owners
Thomas Henry’s name seems to go virtually unrecorded in studies of the period 1800-1830. No specific reference to his Death of Hyacinth comes to light At first, that is. I adjust my search terms, and eventually produce a hit. It is not a hit on ‘Mort d’Hyacinthe’, but on ‘Hyacinthe blessé that proves decisive. From my search into the digital Getty Research Institute catalogue database we learn that in 1809 the painting under review was offered for sale. The catalogue entry reads: ‘Caravage (Michel-Anges de), Hyacinthe blessé par Apollon, et mourant dans ses bras’. Surprise, surprise, again the painting is attributed to Caravaggio. According to the cataloguer’s description the painter has opted for the moment that the blood that flows from the dying Hyacinth’s mouth turns red the flower after which he is named. The two figures are placed against a vigorous landscape. The great power of the picture lies in its exquisite finish, the painter having truly produced a compelling portrait, the cataloguer concludes.
Hyacinthe Blessé = Our Death of Hyacinth
The dimensions of the ‘Hyacinthe blessé’ are in agreement with Cherbourg’s The Death of Hyacinth. The entry for the 8-9 January 1809 Paris sale shows that the ‘Hyacinthe blessé’ was sold by Lespinasse de Lanjac (sic, = de Langeac), and that there had been a transaction amounting to 979 frs. That Apollo and Hyacinth are painted in a landscape cannot be established in the transparency that I received from the Thomas Henry museum. It is obvious that their painting is in urgent need of restoration, its background being completely obscure. The blood dripping from Hyacinth’s lips, however, is clearly visible. As to the prices of the 15,000 paintings that were sold on the Paris art market between 1800-1810 the catalogue test editor Burton Fredericksen shows that only 5 % fetched over 1,000 francs. So the 969 francs the Hyacinthe blessé made at the Paris auction of 1809 was only marginally below the highest category. According to the auction catalogue the buyer of the Hyacinthe blessé attributed to Caravaggio is unknown, but in my view it was probably Thomas Henry, who kept it until his death when it ended up in the Cherbourg museum. It is certainly the Death of Hyacinth of our inquiry. No trace of the painting in the auction catalogue’s database of the late eighteenth century, making it plausible that the painting had not entered France through the customary auction sale.
The Lespinasses de Langeac
In trying to establish which member of the Lespinasses de Langeac actually sold the Hyacinthe blesséin 1809 I soon get entangled in the intricate genealogical web of this large French noble family. The two prime candidates appear to be Auguste-Louis-César-Hippolite-Théodore de Lespinasse (1767 – 1814), and his oldest brother Auguste-Louis-Joseph-Fidèle-Amand (1750-1833). It is plausible that it was his oldest brother who had sold the painting in 1809. That a surprising number of Lespinasses held leading military positions during Napoleon’s war campaigns sheds a fascinating light on how one of them may have come in the possession of the painting. We may well hypothesize that it was their uncle Augustin de Lespinasse (1737-1816), the family’s principal warlord. In 1798 he briefly commanded the artillery of the Army of Rome, became one of Napoleon’s most dedicated captains of war, after which he switched to a political career in Paris.
David’s Tennis Court Oath
Allow me a brief, but relevant interlude to put tennis in post-revolutionary France into perspective. One monumental work of art showing a tennis court (Jeu de Paume) caused an upheaval in France that was to affect all arts: Jacques-Louis David’s monumental Oath of the Tennis Court (Le Serment du Jeu de Paume) of 1791. It may be seen as the ultimate painting that was to display that the old Republican model had collapsed after the French revolution of 1789. The vast canvas that David made of the event was to display the unity and solidarity of the group that was to become France’s primary legislative. It is quite a convivial atmosphere David created for his Oath with balls and rackets scattered around on the floor, just as if a game in progress had been interrupted. We see spectators from the galleries fervently expressing their enthusiasm as well as a boisterous group in the high windows showing their warm support for what is going on below. The Third State members could not have opted for a site with a more royal aura than the Versailles Jeu de Paume. From the sixteenth century onwards the French kings practised the game passionately and at great expense had incorporated tennis courts within the layout of their favourite residences.
Returning to our Death of Hyacinth, we may well assume that it was a Roman patron or mentor of Caravaggio who had commissioned the painting. In trying to establish how the Lespinasses had acquired the picture we should bear in mind that virtually all the Italian art that found its way to France between roughly 1795-1810 may be linked to the plunder of art by Napoleon’s troupes one way or another. As a striking example of Napoleon’s looting of art in Italy we will show what trials and tribulations some of the Borghese antiquities experienced in the early nineteenth century. They happen to coincide with the time The Death entered the Paris art market.
Nowadays, six days a week, from 8.30 in the morning to 7.30 in the evening - in slots of two hours - thousands of visitors flock to see the art treasures of Rome’s Villa Borghese which Scipione Borghese accumulated when he served his uncle Pope Paul V (1605-1621) as papal nephew. The collection of paintings and sculptures figures among the most important in The Eternal City. The sculpture collection, including some of the masterpieces made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is displayed in eleven rooms on the ground floor. In the thirteen rooms of the upper storey of the museum the visitors can admire the paintings Scipione acquired. Six paintings by Caravaggio which the cardinal acquired dominate Sala VIII.
In 1808 the Villa Borghese museum experienced one of its most turbulent years, when the family was forced to sell some of its antiquities to Napoleon. The year 1808 may well prove to be of significance in my research into how the Death of Hyacinth painting entered the Paris art market. The first record of the Death of Hyacinth in France is 1809, when Lespinasse de Langeac sold his Hyacinthe blessé to the highest bidder at a Paris auction, apparently Thomas Henry of Cherbourg. The date coincides with the latter stages of Napoleon’s conquests in Europe, which were followed by a systematic attempt to take the finest works of art of conquered nations back to the Musée Napoleon, the later Louvre. Italy in particular had to endure the confiscation of major works of art. The destiny of many works of antiquity in the Borghese collection needs to be seen in the light of plunder and confiscation. It should be noted that the works that were transported from Rome to Paris in 1808 were mainly ancient sculptures, but the shipment also included various paintings. Will I be able to find any trace of The Death in contemporary descriptions?
No, not for some time.