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Julien de Parme

(1736 Cavigliano – 1799 Paris)

Jupiter Asleep in the Arms of Juno. Pen and brown ink; pen and brown ink framing lines. 24.2 x 18.8 cm (image size) on 39.1 x 29 cm (sheet size). Monogrammed, dated and inscribed in the artist’s own hand: "Iliade XIV / J. 1772 / Fait d’après le Tableau."

A good deal of contradictory information is in circulation regarding the true identity and personal career of Julien de Parme, as already in the early 19th century the artist – who was born in 1736 in Cavigliano, Ticino – was often confused with the French painter Simon Julien (1735–1800). We cannot even be sure of his real name, and the circumstances of his upbringing are also largely unknown. Pierre Rosenberg deserves the credit for shedding some light on the darkness. In the exhibition catalogue entitled Julien de Parme (Rancate / Mamiano di Traversetilo, 1999–2000) he gives a lucid and authoritative account of the career of this gifted painter who was so dogged by ill luck, although we still await a comprehensive monograph on the life and work of Julien de Parme.

Even Julien’s autobiography, published a few years after his death, is of limited help in clarifying the facts. The surviving letters reveal an educated, if somewhat eccentric personality who remained more or less a loner all his life. A contemporary of Julien’s, the Swedish sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel, referred to his colleague as "Julien, known as the philosopher". What is certain is that at a very early age, i.e. in or around 1747, Julien emigrated to France, where he was to live until 1759. This was followed by a lengthy stay in Rome, lasting from 1760 to 1773. In summer 1773, after a brief sojourn in Venice, Julien finally settled in Paris for good, where he died destitute in 1799.

Julien’s beginnings as a painter were overshadowed by material needs. In the summer of 1756 he was living in straitened circumstances in Paris and was not admitted to the artistic circles there. Only after he returned to Italy did his career take a turn for the better. Thanks to the personal patronage of Guillaume Du Tillot, the powerful and highly cultivated First Minister of the Duchy of Parma, Julien was able to devote himself to the practice of his art in Rome without any financial worries, although there too he lived the life of a recluse. During his Roman years he engaged in an intensive study of classical antiquity and the art of Raphael, developing a boundless admiration for his idol, Anton Raphael Mengs. As a token of gratitude to the town which had granted him an annual pension, Julien called himself Julien de Parme from 1773 onwards. In 1771, however, his patron Du Tillot fell a victim to political intrigues and was toppled from power, leaving Julien deprived of his stipend. In 1773 he set off again for Paris in the hope of continuing his artistic career there. Although he got occasional commissions at first, life in Paris proved increasingly difficult. Julien’s stubborn character and derogatory opinion of the works of his Parisian colleagues stood in the way of his social acceptance and ultimately led to his being refused admission to the Académie Royale in 1780. This spectacular failure marked another turning point in Julien’s life. Thereafter he just about kept his head above water by doing odd jobs, but in 1790 he abandoned painting altogether.

The present drawing was done after the lost painting Jupiter Asleep in the Arms of Juno, which Julien de Parme had executed in Rome for the Russian Prince Nikolai Galitzin in 1772. The latter failed to pay up, however, and the work was finally acquired by the Duc de Nivernais in 1782. The mythological composition with life-size figures met with general recognition. Johan Tobias Sergel was very generous with his praise and made a sketch after the painting, which Julien had put on display in his studio where it could be seen by interested members of the Roman public. This unexpected public favour induced Julien to have a reproductive engraving made after the painting in 1776, no doubt in the hope of creating a supplementary source of income. To the artist’s great displeasure, however, the work proceeded at such a slow pace that it was 1779 before an edition of the engraving appeared. The commercial success of the engraving made by Guillaume-Philippe Benoist must have been slight, as the print is rare and was evidently only published in a small edition.

The question as to whether Julien’s pen drawing was done in connection with this reproductive engraving cannot be answered explicitly, although it seems more plausible that it served the artist as a ricordo. The sheet is executed in a free and fluent drawing style with all the spontaneity of a draft sketch, so it may not have been suitable as a model for the engraver. The scene is a famous, albeit seldom illustrated episode from the fourteenth book of the Iliad. Juno, the protective goddess of the Trojans, is trying to divert the attention of her consort, Jupiter, from how the war is going. She seduces him with the aid of a magic girdle belonging to Venus and persuades Hypnos to put Jupiter to sleep after the act of love. Julien has interpreted the incident in an original and very spiritual way. The beholder’s attention is focused fully on the involuntary lovers, who dominate the composition. The youthful and seductive Juno looks at the beholder almost with complicity, while her duped and notoriously unfaithful spouse is sunk in a deep slumber. The ironical message is that it is not Jupiter, the virile King of the Gods, but a woman who is guiding the destinies of Troy. Classicist elegance and a subtle dramaturgy combine to create a work of great artistic appeal. Lack of talent cannot have been the reason for the vicissitudes of Julien’s artistic career, which were more likely due to a mixture of melancholy, an uncompromising character, and an instinctive aversion to opportunism, and one cannot help feeling sympathy for this lone wolf whom history treated so shabbily.

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