French painting given new life at Lightner Museum

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By ELIZABETH GRAHAM

One need not travel to Paris, New York or London to see world-class art. St. Augustine’s Lightner Museum has plenty of pieces on display. On display are such treasures as a Russian malachite urn first exhibited in London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851; a grand escritoire commissioned circa 1806 by the King of Holland Louis Bonaparte; and a grand clock cast by Pierre Phillippe Thomire similar to one housed in Buckingham Palace. One remarkable piece in Lightner’s original collection is a large scene known as “The Temptation,” — or by its French title “La Tentation” — which features a monk, cloaked in darkness, being seduced by the temptations of a worldly life.

Such a theme was common throughout centuries of artistic renderings for another painting in the collection, “The Temptation of St. Hilarion” by Octave Tassaert has much the same imagery and symbolism.

“La Tentation,” painted by French artist Jules-Arsène Garnier (1847–1889) in 1879, is a large oil-on-canvas piece that originally graced the halls of Parisian salons where artists were invited to exhibit their works. Garnier defined his role as a great artist in 1869 when he received his first such invitation.

Despite his fame as an artist of the Academic school. little is known about what happened to “La Tentation” or how it arrived in the U.S.

It is probable that “La Tentation” was acquired by an American collector. Though the identity of the buyer is unknown.

The painting was eventually exhibited at the Ohio Theater before being purchased by Otto Lightner in 1928 when the theater was renovated to reflect the Art-Deco style.

Once in Lightner’s possession, the painting continued to be displayed through the 1950s until it was eventually put in storage. There the piece remained until the museum’s current director, Robert W. Harper, believed it deserved to be restored so it could be seen by another generation of art lovers.

The desire to exhibit Garnier’s work presented a unique set of challenges for the museum, not least of which was attempting to resurrect the history of the painting.

Armed with his knowledge of art history, Harper believed he knew where to begin his search.

“I always felt due to its size it must have been created for Paris Salon,” Harper says. “And the impetus for doing more research on the provenance of the painting was when Lightner Museum Board Chairman David Drysdale and his wife CeCe kindly offered to pay for the restoration.”

Using academic archives on the Internet, Harper eventually located a review of the painting by a “rather prudish American lady who was highly critical of the use of the nude figure,” he says, “however, she gave a favorable review to the artist’s other work being exhibited at the same time. At this point, I felt positive this work was created for the salon in 1879. Further, I also came across the original catalog now a part of the Getty Archives in Los Angeles. There in the program was a full page illustration of our painting!” Now Harper could be confident in the painting’s origins, as well as how illustrious a piece it actually is.

Knowing its important place in the history of the art world only further spurred the desire to have it restored after decades of wear and tear. However, the painting bore the signs of rough handling, termite damage and an earlier botched restoration attempt.

While Harper was working to trace the painting’s origins, James Swope, a Fine Art Conservationist from West Palm Beach, was taking on the restoration.

Swope combined old-world craft, modern knowledge and a little chemistry to work through the many layers of dirt that had accumulated over the years without damaging the original oils. The original canvas was also riddled with holes that needed to be patched.

“There was nothing unusual about the project,” Swope says, “It was just a huge piece of art and had extensive damage that required repair. It was a real pleasure to work on because of its transformation from a dirty and tattered piece to its unveiling as a beautiful example of French academic realism.”

“La Tentation” now hangs in the Grand Ballroom Gallery of the museum where Harper hopes visitors will look beyond the nude figures to understand its true artistic value.

“The strength of the work is the artist’s exceptional sense of drawing, his variety of surface effects and his use of color. And though the painting is strictly done in the academic tradition (one that favors the Classical proportions) as far as the figures go, the background is more loosely rendered suggesting a beginning influence of the Impressionist movement that would soon follow,” he says.

Other works by Garnier can now be found in the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts, le musée des beaux-arts de Dijon, and le musée de l’Histoire de France in Versailles.

This collaborative effort to restore and further preserve “La Tentation” now affords visitors of the Lightner Museum the opportunity to view this painting in much the same way as those exclusive guests in Paris in 1879 had.