This is the first time the painting has been shown in the United States.
Williamstown, Massachusetts—For the first time since acquiring Guillaume Guillon Lethière’s masterpiece, Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death, the Clark Art Institute presents the painting in its permanent collection galleries, beginning November 27.
The painting was acquired at auction this spring along with a preparatory drawing by Lethière (c. 1788) and a stipple engraving dated 1794 by Pierre Charles Coqueret (Paris, 1761–1832) after Lethière’s painting. Conservation of the painting, drawing, and print were undertaken by Montserrat Le Mense at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. All three works will go on view in a special installation in the Clark’s galleries.
“We are truly thrilled to be able to be able to share these works with our visitors,” said Esther Bell, the Clark’s Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Chief Curator and Curator of Painting and Sculpture. “For more than 200 years, Lethière’s impactful painting has been in private hands, so it’s an absolute delight for the Clark to be able to introduce it to our visitors and make it available for study and appreciation by future generations.”
Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death was displayed at the Salons of 1795 and 1801 and has never before been shown in the United States.
Guillaume Guillon Lethière is widely recognized as the first major French artist of African descent. He completed Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death in 1788 at the relatively young age of twenty-eight when he was at the French Academy in Rome. Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death is the first of two paintings on the subject executed by Lethière. The second version is in the collection of the Musée du Louvre, Paris.
“The addition of this important neoclassical work marks a transformative moment for our collection. This is an icon of French painting and French history,” said Bell. “Lethière likely could not have imagined it at the time, but his painting would be publicly exhibited during the height of the French Revolution and would inspire the French citizenry to contemplate the democratic principles at the heart of their tumultuous society. Like his contemporary, Jacques-Louis David, Lethière played a critical role in promoting the artistic tenets of the French Enlightenment.”
The painting depicts a dramatic scene featuring the decapitation of one of the sons of Lucius Junius Brutus. Brutus led the 509 BC revolt to overthrow the last king of Rome and establish the Roman Republic, swearing a sacred oath before its citizens that Rome would never again be subject to the rule of a king. When his two sons were later discovered to be among the conspirators attempting to restore the monarchy, Brutus demonstrated his commitment to the Republic by ordering and then witnessing the execution of his own children.
Painted before the onslaught of the French Revolution, Lethière’s composition is eerily prescient in its moralizing message and its brutal iconography. Brutus’s willingness to prioritize the interests of his country above his own made him an exemplar of Republican duty and stoicism. The tale inspired Voltaire and other leaders of the Enlightenment to establish Brutus as a foundational hero of the French Republic.
About Guillaume Guillon Lethière
The life and career of Guillaume Guillon Lethière (1760–1832) are extraordinary. Born in the French colony of Guadeloupe, he was the son of Pierre Guillon, a French government official, and Marie-Françoise Pepayë, an emancipated African slave. He was called “Le Thière,” a reference to his status as his father’s third illegitimate child. Lethière moved to France with his father at the age of fourteen, studying with Jean-Baptiste Descamps in Rouen for three years before entering the studio of Gabriel-François Doyen at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris. He submitted works for the Prix de Rome in 1784 and 1786 and secured a Roman pension in 1786.
Lethière remained in Rome until 1791 before returning to Paris, where he opened a studio that competed with that of Jacques-Louis David. His ethnicity caused Lethière’s contemporaries to refer to him as a “man of color” and “l’Americain.” Napoleon’s brother Lucien Bonaparte was his close supporter. After an 1801 trip to Spain with Lucien Bonaparte, Lethière reportedly killed a soldier during a dispute, and as a result, his studio was closed by government officials. Despite this, Bonaparte interceded on the artist’s behalf, helping him to secure an appointment as the Director of the Académie de France in Rome at the Villa Medici.
Pensionnaires at the academy during Lethière’s tenure as director from 1807–1814 included Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Merry-Joseph Blondel, and David d’Angers, among others. During this time, Ingres sketched Lethière (Morgan Library & Museum) as well as members of his family, as evidenced in the beautiful sheet, Madame Guillaume Guillon Lethière and her son Lucien Lethière (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
With the Bourbon Restoration, Lethière lost his position as director in Rome and returned to Paris, where he took on private students. After initially being rejected—likely on the basis of either his race or his political alignments—Lethière was admitted to the Institut de France in 1818. He was awarded the Légion d’honneur in the same year. In 1819, he became a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he worked until his death. His studio included several students from Guadeloupe, notably Jean-Baptiste Gibert and Benjamin Rolland.
Despite living most of his life in France, Lethière’s strong identification with his birthplace never diminished. In 1822 Lethière sent a monumental canvas measuring thirteen by ten feet, Oath of the Ancestors, as a gift to the Haitian people commemorating the nation’s independence and resistance to colonization. The painting represents the alliance of a black officer and a slave leader standing under God; it hung in the cathedral of Port-au-Prince until it was moved to the presidential residence. Although the painting sustained significant damage as a result of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, it has since been restored and is one of Haiti’s most celebrated cultural assets. Lethière signed this work with his name and dual-national identities, noting both his birthplace as Guadeloupe and his then-current residence in Paris.
Lethière, along with Jacques-Louis David and Jean Germain Drouais, ranks as one of the most important neoclassical artists of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries.
About the Acquisition
The Clark’s acquisition includes three works:
Guillaume Guillon Lethière (French, 1760–1832)
Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death, 1788
Oil on canvas
23.375” x 39” (59.4 x 99.1 cm.)
Guillaume Guillon Lethière (French,1760–1832)
Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death, c. 1788
Black chalk, brush with brown and gray washes
14” x 24.5”
Pierre Charles Coqueret (French, 1761–1832) after Guillaume Lethière
Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death
Stipple engraving on laid paper, 1794
Image: 22.5” x 38.75”, Sheet: 27” x 42.5”
ABOUT THE CLARK
The Clark Art Institute, located in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, is one of a small number of institutions globally that is both an art museum and a center for research, critical discussion, and higher education in the visual arts. Opened in 1955, the Clark houses exceptional European and American paintings and sculpture, extensive collections of master prints and drawings, English silver, and early photography. Acting as convener through its Research and Academic Program, the Clark gathers an international community of scholars to participate in a lively program of conferences, colloquia, and workshops on topics of vital importance to the visual arts. The Clark library, consisting of more than 270,000 volumes, is one of the nation’s premier art history libraries. The Clark also houses and co-sponsors the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art.
The Clark, which has a three-star rating in the Michelin Green Guide, is located at 225 South Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Galleries are open daily in July and August and Tuesday through Sunday, from September through June. Hours: 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is $20; free year-round for Clark members, children 18 and younger, and students with valid ID. Free admission is available through several programs, including First Sundays Free; a local library pass program; EBT Card to Culture; Bank of America Museums on Us; and Blue Star Museums. For more information on these programs and more, visit clarkart.edu or call 413 458 2303.