Major French Artwork gets a Rebirth at the Lightner

275-Temptation-LIGHTNERMajor French Artwork gets a Rebirth at the Lightner

Elizabeth Graham
Special to Historic City News

One does not have to travel to Paris, New York or London to see world-class art: here at Saint Augustine’s Lightner Museum there are numerous examples of major artworks.

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.

These and many other fine examples of paintings, porcelain, and sculpture are on display at the Lightner Museum.

Another remarkable piece included 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 wooded darkness, being seduced by the frivolity and 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 had originally graced the halls of the famous and exclusive Parisian salons to which established or aspiring artists had to be invited to exhibit their works. Indeed, it was often the zenith of an artist’s career to be so honored and Garnier had already defined his role as a great artist as early as 1869 when he received his first such invitation. Despite his fame as an artist of the Academic school little is known, unfortunately, about what happened to La Tentation or how it arrived in the United States. It is probable, however, that just as many great works of European artists were being acquired for American collections, so too was this exceptional work by Garnier.

Though the identity of this first purchaser remains obscured, the painting was eventually exhibited at the Ohio Theater in Columbus 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 delight its audiences throughout the 1950s until it was eventually put in storage. There, the captivating piece was to remain until the museum’s current director, Robert W. Harper, believed it deserved to be restored to its original glory so it could enchant another generation of art lovers. The desire to once again exhibit Garnier’s work presented a unique set of challenges for the museum, however, not least of which was attempting to find out the history of the painting itself.

Armed with his own knowledge of art history and its many epochs, Mr. Harper believed he knew where to begin his search. “I always felt due to its size it must have been created for Paris Salon,” explains Mr. Harper. “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 the increasing accessibility to academic archives now available on the Internet, Mr. 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, at least, Mr. 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 on the necessity to have it restored after decades of wear and tear.

The task was not going to be easy to accomplish, however, because the painting was showing unfortunate signs of rough handling during its many moves, termite damage and even an earlier botched restoration attempt.

While Mr. Harper was working to trace the painting’s origins, James Swope, a Fine Art Conservationist from West Palm Beach, Florida was taking on the vital role to rescue this piece from its state of damage and decay. Over the course of hundreds of hours, Mr. Swope said he combined old world craft as well as modern knowledge and application of chemistry to work through the many layers of dirt that had accumulated over the years without damaging the original oils underneath.

Furthermore, the original canvas was riddled with holes that needed to be stabilized. Despite what would have been seen by many to appear as an insurmountable task, Mr. Swope says, “there was nothing unusual about the project. It was just a huge piece of art and had extended 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 its pristine condition in the Grand Ballroom Gallery of the museum where Mr. Harper hopes those who view it will look beyond the nude figures that so disturbed an American woman nearly 150 years ago 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 explains.

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