"...plenty of charm in these bright projections..." Évariste Vital Luminais, Painter of the Gauls and Merovingians

14 May 1896, the French academic and history painter Évariste Vital Luminais died in Paris at the age of 74.

“And, indeed, I found plenty of charm in these bright projections, which seemed to have come straight out of a Merovingian past, and to shed around me the reflections of such ancient history.“ (Marcel Proust, “Swann’s Way”)

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821 -1896): "Goths Crossing a River" (c 1880)

Glorifying the past was a trademark of the Romantic Movement. Amidst the political turmoil of the long 19th century, the romantically moved hotheads usually did not take long to climax even the “once upon a time” of a seemingly innocent fairy tale into a revolutionary message. A nation, Goethe mentioned, was supposed to have a national epic if it wanted to count for something while mountains, rivers and forests became identity-establishing symbols, usually personified and subsequently depicted as half-clad females, languishing appetisingly in an explosion of light on the respective Romantic spot or, became heroines virtuously armoured in scale mail, swinging the national colours in a previously half-forgotten battle. Especially the downtrodden ethnicities of the post-Napoleonic multinational empires revelled in Romantic nationalism, from Galway to Heidelberg, Helsinki, Budapest and Athens, “freedom!” was on the lips of every self-respecting individual, at least in a spirit, and reaching for muskets and stuff to erect barricades on the high street of the provincial capital of the back-of-beyond one inhabited always was a political possibility. But Romantic nationalism wasn’t the playing fields of the humiliated and insulted alone. Far from it. The major voices in the Concert of Europe revelled in it as well, to celebrate their own leitmotif, especially if they got their noses bloodied in some event or the other and called out for revenge. In the process, the recourse on ancient history itself usually was somewhat unscientific, ruins, old texts and unearthed artefacts usually were interpreted to fit in the romantically moved political programme and during the rising tensions between France and the German-speaking states, Gauls and ancient Germanics became role models and rallying points on both sides of the River Rhine. Back in the day, Caesar claimed the tribes dwelling on the left side of the river called themselves “Celts” while they might or might not referred to themselves as Gal(a)to. Greek folk etymology already connected the derived term “Galateans” with the word γάλα, gála "milk" with their milk-white skins and during the Middle Ages, le coq gaulois began to crow, the Gallic rooster, since the Latin word for said poultry, gallus, was so wonderfully similar to “Gaul”. During the French Revolution, the cocky fowl finally became an unofficial national symbol and the idea to start French history in the days of the ancient Gauls instead of those of Christian Merovingian royalty began in earnest. Along with the idea of having blond or ginger drooping-mustachioed, long-haired, winged-helmet-wearing, boar-feasting, freedom-loving Roman- and German-trashing barbarians hence known as Gauls as one’s ancestors. And one artist, almost lost to oblivion these days, codified this image, the “Painter of the Gauls”, Évariste Vital Luminais.

Either a Gallic or Merovingian barbarian on the rampage:
Évariste Vital Luminais: "Le Ravissement" (1889)

When Luminais first came to Paris at the age of 18 from his native Nantes to study painting in the capital of arts, the Romantic Movement was the dernier cri and Delacroix was rising to the height of his fame. “Passionately in love with passion,” as Baudelaire later put it, “but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible”, Delacroix’s masterpieces certainly did things to the impressionable young man. Approaching the old masters that had taught Delacroix himself a thing or three under these auspices, the Academic education of Luminais took a somewhat surprising turn. Academic painting after the 1840s, usually derided as “Fireman Art” among the Bohème, a pun on the quasi-Greco-Roman helmets the figures populating academistic art wore, making them look quite like contemporary Parisian firefighters, en déshabillé, admittedly, was certainly influenced by the drama of the Romantic Movement that was about to pass away by then, and did salvage some stylistic elements. But, by and large, book-learning and historical reference obfuscated a complete lack of imagination and many of the exhibits of the Salon and the pieces hanging in the upper classes’ parlours and bedrooms were technically sound kitsch. Aristotle’s ideal of mimesis, imitation and representation of reality, combined with the sujets and lines of Neoclassicism were at the core of what was taught. Strict compliance to the technical and aesthetic rules as well as the choice of desirable motifs for a sculpture or a painting, usually was the fundament, while the –isms of the day, Realism, Impressionism and Symbolism, to name but a few, took root and flourished outside the academy’s walls. And Luminais did climb over the wall, every now and then. While he is generally classified as “Academic Painter”, if he is remembered at all, he took up the baton from the Romantics, especially in choosing patinated subjects from beyond the Classical canon of Greco-Roman antiquity, and created an amalgam of history painting and symbolist art with a distinct national romantic note.

Calm Horror - Évariste Vital Luminais: "Les Énervés de Jumièges" (1880) *

After the sound trashing Napoleon III and France’s Second Empire got from Bismarck’s reunified Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, the newly founded Third Republic was in desperate need of some balm for injured national pride. And Luminais had mixed a wonderful remedy. Not only with a pictorial narrative mourning the end of empires brought by the hands of barbarians, Rome, in this case, but with a reimagination of a wonderful past as well, that of the ancient Gauls and, interestingly enough, the bittersweet memory of the bygone Merovingian dynasty that had once ruled what was to become France. Anathema to the revolutionaries of 1789, who desecrated the tombs of the old kings buried at St Denis, Clovis, who had famously swept the floor with Les Allemands at the Battle of Tolbiac back in AD 496 experienced a renaissance with the imagination of Luminais and so did the grim old monarch’s rather outré successors. Who were deposed by the Carolingians from east of the Rhine, the poor things, and after 1871, one could heartily sympathise with them, non? Until, in 1883, an art critic sighed over Luminais’ “The Last of the Merovingians” that he hoped it would indeed be the last one. Charlemagne was forgiven and had been repatriated. The Gauls were more innocuous, however, even if Europe’s and France’s Celtomania was on the decline and the Gaelic revival was met with a rising Celtoscepticism among the English, French and German audiences. However, Luminais was inspired to create some Breton imagery referring to more recent narratives than that of the Gauls of antiquity but by then, Luminais had almost become a museum piece himself and the winner of several medals awarded at the Paris Salon and member of the Légion d'honneur began to withdraw into the realm of legend. His archetypical paintings of the barbarians of yore, though, remained and significantly shaped the popular image we have of Gauls to this day and not only through the influence Luminais had on Goscinny’s and Uderzo’s “Adventures of Asterix“.

Half Gaul, half Merovingian, riding a steed à la Delacroix:
 Évariste Vital Luminais imagination of Merovech, the half-mythical
progenitor of the Merovingian kings of the Franks  

* according to an old legend, the two sons of the 7th century Merovingian King Clovis II of Neustria, rebelled against their father while he was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. In a Freudian primal scene, their returning sire defeated and unmanned (unnerved) the two juvenile miscreants by cutting their tendons and setting them adrift on the River Seine on a raft. They were later rescued and nursed back to health by monks of Jumièges Abbey in Normandy. A legend indeed, since Clovis II was otherwise known as the “Child King”, lived to the age of 21 and albeit he sired three sons who succeeded him as kings of Neustria, Austrasia and Burgundy, all parties involved were hardly old enough to enact the legendary drama for real. However, Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1960 about Luminais’ arguably best-known painting on display in Rouen: “I remained for a long time affected by the calm horror which it evokes."

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