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Louvre: Leopold Robert – The Pilgrimage to the Madonna of the Arch

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Leopold Robert - The Pilgrimage to the Madonna of the Arch

This work is not currently visible in the rooms of the Museum

In the prestigious frame of the Bay of Naples and following the shores of the Gulf, a joyous caravan returns from the legendary pilgrimage to the Madonna of the Arc. Every year, on the feast of Pentecost, the Neapolitan population goes in crowds to the venerated sanctuary, less perhaps to pray there than to make a gita in the countryside. Now, on that day, the Gulf shines under the immaculate azure of the sky, and the light vapor rising from Vesuvius attests to the serene stillness of the air. The party was certainly charming, as our pilgrims show a lot of enthusiasm. On the advancing carriage, drawn by two oxen with golden horns, the yoke of which is adorned with foliage, a young girl sits, dressed in the traditional Neapolitan costume; in her right hand she holds a garlanded crook carrying a bouquet. Behind her, a young man, standing, leans slightly and takes her by the waist. Sitting next to her, a peasant woman tries to detach the banner from a bouquet worn by a singer at the front of the cart, next to a little musician. In the back another contadino, legs hanging, sings accompanied by the mandolin. Two children, on foot, precede the chariot, singing and dancing; one of them carries a thyrsus on his shoulder, the other strikes the string of a musical instrument, made of three mallets of wood. On the left, peasants come forward singing.

This amiable composition was part of a series of Seasons that Leopold Robert, in order to rejuvenate the subject, had conceived in a very picturesque way. The Pilgrimage to the Madonna of the Arch symbolized Spring. Another of his paintings, no less famous, represented Autumn: it is the Halt of the Reapers in the Pontine Marshes. To represent Winter, the painter, who was then in Venice, neglected the rebellious subject of the Carnival and gave the Departure of the fishermen of the Adriatic for long-distance fishing. The tragic end of the unhappy artist left the series unfinished.

Leopold Robert enjoys a great reputation in his lifetime, perhaps superior to his merit. His fame was later very controversial: he was reproached for his lack of inspiration, his indecision, his endless groping, his dry contours and his slightly rocky color. These reproaches are partly founded. Leopold Robert was working slowly, constantly returning to the character already made, erasing, resuming, erasing again. One of his paintings, like Corinne improvising at Cape Misene, was repeated a hundred times to finally become a Neapolitan improviser.

Leopold Robert, however, possessed remarkable qualities: if he was indecisive and timid, in art as in his private life, he redeemed these defects by a passionate love of nature, which gives all his paintings a grace, a naturalness, and even a spontaneity under which disappears the effort of his trial and error. Painter of genre above all, his works have not great flight, but they are probing, conscientious and testify to a very developed sense of the picturesque. All his paintings are honorable; two of them, the Return of the Pilgrimage and the Reapers rest are masterpieces. Does it take more to illustrate a painter?

When he exhibited in Paris his Halt of the Reapers, the success was triumphal and, at the end of the Salon, the king himself tied the cross of the Legion of Honor on the chest of the artist.

Famous in France, Leopold Robert was no less so in Italy, where most of his short life was spent. His successes won him the most flattering favors; he benefited from illustrious friendships with which his candid soul was dazzled and who put the tragedy into his life. He was in Florence when he was called to teach lessons to Princess Charlotte Bonaparte, daughter of King Joseph, and wife of Louis Napoleon, elder brother of the future Napoleon III. The princess was good, comely and familiar; she loved the talent of the artist. In the intimacy of daily work and in the abandonment of friendly conversation, the poor painter, new Ruy-Blas, fell in love with his pupil, violently, and forever. “Earthworm in love with a star”, he hid his passion from the princess but, deep in his heart, he nourishes the impossible hope that the daughter of kings would bow one day to him. In 1831, the death of Louis Napoleon seemed to bring him closer to his idol, but this one, ignoring the feelings of the painter or feigning to ignore them, heard nothing of “the murmur of love raised on his footsteps”. Leopold Robert then understood the immensity of his error, he measured the abyss which separated him from the princess. Disillusioned but not cured, he left Florence and came to hide in Venice his inconsolable pain. To try to forget, he threw himself into the work, but his deep melancholy saddened his last works that bear the imprint of this state of mind. And as the inaccessible image still obsessed him, the unfortunate painter, in an attack of despair, cut his throat on May 30, 1835. He was only 41 years old.

The Pilgrimage to the Madonna of the Arch appeared at the Salon of 1827; he was bought 4,000 francs by the state. He is also known as “Reapers and Pilgrims of the Roman Campaign.”

Height: 1.47 – Width: 2.14 – Figures: 0.64.

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