Anyone who has ever stood in front of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s (1848-1884) monumental “Joan of Arc” painting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art likely already knows the mesmerizing impact it can have on viewers. At just over eight feet high and nine feet wide, it’s a towering, ambitious tour de force of narrative painting, with incredible naturalistic detail and one of the most captivating facial expressions ever captured on canvas. The subject is of course the medieval French martyr and patron saint Jeanne d’Arc, who led France to victory against England in 1429 and was later burned at the stake. Although Bastien’s “Joan of Arc” was well-received by the public when it was revealed in 1879, it did solicit some criticism from the powers that be at the Paris Salon. Nevertheless, today “Joan of Arc” stands as one of the finest examples of naturalistic style and European history painting in the canon of art history.
Jules Bastien-Lepage grew up in the rural province of Lorraine, France, and displayed a penchant for drawing pastoral scenes at an early age. Eventually making his way to the bustling city of Paris to study art at the age of 19, he attended classes at Jean-Léon Gérôme’s French academy, the famed École des Beaux-Arts, built on the methods of the Old Masters. Three years later, Bastien applied for the first time to the Paris Salon, which was considered one of the preeminent exhibitions and competitions in 19th-century Europe, along with the Prix de Rome. He would win his first Paris Salon medal in 1874 for his “Portrait of My Grandfather” which proved to be a turning point in his career.
After several more successful showings at the Paris Salon but two personally disappointing Prix de Rome results, Bastien had an epiphany. Questioning his academic training, if not downright resenting it, he declared that he was leaving the “heap of formulas” he learned at the École des Beaux-Arts to pursue a more naturalistic and truthful approach to realism. Gravitating toward the work of artists who created honest depictions of everyday life, such as Millet and Courbet, he distanced himself from both classicism and the modern Impressionists, while unknowingly building a bridge from the French Academy to the Barbizon School.
Acclaimed works created in this manner kept coming—including “The Potato Gatherers”, “Haymakers”, and “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt”—and at the age of 31 Bastien painted arguably his most famous work. “Joan of Arc” not only captures the stylistic vision he was working toward but also pays homage to a subject close to home. At the time, France had recently been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War (which the artist himself fought in), and creating a sense of national patriotism was paramount. Bastien stepped up with an emblematic reminder of one of the country’s greatest war victories led by Joan of Arc, who was also from the province of Lorraine. Rather than paint her as the victorious Hundred Years’ War heroine in her signature silver armor, or even as the martyr on trial at the end of her life at 19, he decided instead to depict her as a young peasant girl at the promising age of 13. This is when she started to hear voices from above and believed God was calling her to lead France in a victorious battle against the English.
Bastien painted the young shepherdess standing in her parents’ garden, looking up with pensive, earnest eyes, eager to accept this divine mission and help save her people. Similar to the stories of several Biblical characters — the shepherd boy David standing up to the Philistine giant Goliath; Esther going before King Xerxes asking to set the Jewish people free; the Virgin Mary visited by the angel Gabriel with news that she was carrying the Son of God —Joan of Arc’s life served as a timeless reminder to the French people of how God often chose humble, faithful, courageous people for great purposes.
Just as Joan of Arc’s life was tragically cut short, so too was Bastien’s. He was just 36 when a lingering kidney condition took his life. Although the artist was probably still ascending to his peak, “Joan of Arc” leaves us with a visual summary of all he valued and took pride in as a painter and Frenchman. “I am not afraid of death,” he stated months before his passing. “Dying is nothing — the important thing is to survive oneself, and who can be sure of establishing a claim upon posterity? But there! I am talking nonsense! So long as our work is true, nothing else matters.”
Have you ever seen Joan of Arc in person? Want to suggest great works of art for future issues? Leave a comment at firstname.lastname@example.org
Allison Malafronte is a writer, editor, and artist based in New Jersey.