A face that is gaunt and shockingly emaciated from self-starvation is not a look that we generally associate with portraits from the past. But with the Portrait of Abbot Firmin Tournus from 1725, that is what confronts us: a vision of a skull with a thin layer of flesh barely stretched across it. Yet that is exactly the way that the Abbot wanted it, difficult as that might be for us to believe today.
The Abbot’s portrait challenges our expectations, because we realise that commissioned portraits were often a way for the ‘sitters’ to project their preferred images of themselves into the world. They usually expressed physical attractiveness, worldly achievement, prosperity and opulence. Artists were expected to provide a generous assessment of the sitter’s physical qualities. That is to say, portraits were often driven by outrageous flattery for the person being painted – who was most likely the person who was paying the artist. It literally paid dividends for the artist to pander to the vanity of the wealthy sitter. Art galleries around the world are nowadays packed with such highly romanticised (or fictionalised) pictures of affluent patrons, who often look very pleased with themselves.
However, there were some rare exceptions to artistic flattery. Back in 1654, the famously ugly Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, instructed his highly nervous portraitist to paint him ‘warts and all’ – being consistent with his no-nonsense Protestantism. Cromwell’s instruction was so strikingly unusual that the phrase ‘warts and all’ has passed into the English language as a spur to pursue brutal honesty instead of vanity.
Likewise, in the 1790s the great master Francisco Goya painted portraits of the Spanish Bourbon royal dynasty with increasing fidelity to the reality he was seeing in front of him. Unfortunately for the various Bourbon sitters, their family was hopelessly inbred from many decades of inter-marriage with close relatives. The Bourbons were increasingly a gaggle of goggle-eyed and massive-jawed monstrosities. Goya’s artistic honesty finally became an explosive issue and the artist was forced to flee to France to avoid royal persecution.
While the 1725 portrait of the Abbot Tournus has a precedent in Cromwell and a later expression through Goya, it retains a power to physically arrest us. Although the Abbot considered himself loyal to his Catholic faith, he became a follower of a heretic cult known as Jansenism, which followed a religious path of rigorous penance, mortification and self-inflicted suffering to drive out individual depravity. As we might imagine, this was not a wildly popular approach to expressing religious devotion among the Abbots and other grand princes of the Catholic church, who were more concerned with amplifying their own worldly magnificence.
The art of suffering
So, there we have the Abbot Tournus: isolated, declared a heretic and outcast by his church. But he remains in the portrait as he saw himself: being defiantly a man of God according to his own faith, intellect and conscience. Unlike the satin-clad Catholic grandees, he is dressed very simply and is clearly living a frugal life: the room’s furnishings are spartan and while there is a simple loaf of bread – some worldly sustenance and comfort – it is placed almost out of sight and reach. The Abbot’s sustenance comes instead from his books but most importantly from the sufferings of crucified Jesus, whose pain he is emulating as a sign of commitment to ‘pure’ Catholicism.
Perhaps the only kind of material comfort of sorts is the time piece and key, which may well be a memento mori: a reminder that for all of us time will run out and we will die. The portrait seems to suggest that before that inevitability arrives, the Abbot is seeking reconciliation with Jesus by sharing in his torments.
The Portrait of Abbot Firmin Tournus, painted by Jean Bernard Restout, can be viewed at the wonderful Musée Carnavalet – the Museum of the History of Paris – situated at 2 Rue Payenne in the 3rd Arrondisement.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…