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Ary Scheffer's Christus Consolator
Christus Consolator

By Patrick Noon, Curator and Department Chair, Paintings and Modern Sculpture

The Dutch-born and French-trained artist Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) was one of the pre-eminent Romantic painters active in Paris during the first half of the 19th century. Among his signature paintings are Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appraised by Dante and Virgil, numerous illustrations to Faust, and Christus Consolator. Although his earliest works concentrated on illustrating Romantic literature or overtly sentimental genre subjects, after 1830 he became increasingly occupied with Old and New Testament themes.

The primary version of Christus Consolator (measuring 6 x 8 feet) created a sensation when exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1837, where it was purchased by the French monarch’s son, the Duc d’Orléans, as a wedding present for his Lutheran fiancée, the Princess Mecklenburg-Schwerin. It subsequently decorated her Lutheran Chapel at Versailles until she sold it at auction in 1853. That large version ultimately entered the collection of Amsterdam's Historical Museum as part of the bequest of Charles Joseph Fodor in 1860. The painting has been on loan to the Van Gogh Museum since 1987 because of Vincent Van Gogh’s great admiration for its sentiment. At one time, Van Gogh decorated his office with an engraving after the work. "It can be compared to nothing else," he wrote to his brother Theo.

The MIA’s smaller version of 1851, a recent gift from the Gethsemane Lutheran Church of Dassel, Minnesota, in memory of the Rev. D. J. Nordling, and several others recorded in various collections (the Dordrecht and Utrecht museums, for instance), were painted by Scheffer in the 1850s in an effort to capitalize on the painting’s extraordinary popularity throughout Europe and America. Anti-republican political developments in France, in particular those precipitating the coup d'état that elevated Napoleon III to the throne in 1851, might also have prompted Scheffer to revive this composition in oils. He was profoundly distraught after the abdication in 1848, and the death in 1850 of his patron, the liberal King Louis-Philippe.

At the center of the composition is the figure of Christ, surrounded by the afflicted and oppressed. Christus Consolator, or Christ the comforter, was inspired by Luke 4:18: "I have come to heal those who are brokenhearted and to announce to the prisoners their deliverance; to liberate those who are crushed by their chains." This text is inscribed on the frame of the primary version in Amsterdam. The "brokenhearted" are depicted to the left. A kneeling woman mourns her dead child, while in the background (from left to right) we see an exile with his walking stick, a castaway with a piece of the wreckage in his hand, and a suicide with a dagger. Placed near these groups are Torquato Tasso (crowned with laurel), a brilliant 16th-century poet imprisoned as a madman, and figures representing the three ages of women. The model for the oldest woman was Scheffer’s mother. To the right of Christ are the oppressed of both the past and present, among them a Polish independence fighter, a Greek Souliote warrior, a Roman slave, and a black slave. With his left hand Christ releases from his shackles a dying man, the personification of Poland with the shattered weapons of its failed insurrection against Russia by his side, his exposed, wounded body draped in the Polish flag. The repentant Mary Magdalene kneels beside Christ. It is an encyclopedic interpretation of human history that transports the viewer from modern-day Poland, Greece, and America to both the ancient and medieval eras. The composition reflects the renewed interest in France during the 1830s for a more liberal activism within the Catholic Church. On a personal level, it also reveals the artist’s appreciation for various European art movements, especially, the markedly religious Nazarene circle in Germany.

Scheffer’s image enjoyed wide circulation in Europe and America through engraved and lithographic reproductions, including an 1856 lithograph by Currier and Ives. In the southern United States a prayer book circulated with an engraved frontispiece that eliminated the figure of the black slave. This prompted a poetic diatribe in 1859 from the American poet and abolitionist, John Greenleaf Whittier.

Harriet Martineau, the champion of abolitionism and feminism in both England and America, described Scheffer’s image as "the consolation of eighteen centuries... that mysterious assemblage of the redeemed captives and tranquillized mourners of a whole Christendom... that inspired epitome of suffering and solace... it may well be a cause of wonder, almost amounting to alarm, to those who, not having needed, have never felt its power."

The Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt endeavored, like Scheffer, to create a religious and didactic art that was more universal, and although he despised Scheffer’s French academic style of painting, he nevertheless admired Christus Consolator, to the point of admitting that as a young man "it took this admirer captive for a whole week like a popular air."

As for its purely aesthetic merits, the picture superbly represents Scheffer’s mature style, which was second only to that of Jean-Auguste-Domenique Ingres’s in the pantheon of French academic artists. It was, in fact, the 1837 version of Christus Consolator that marked a bold shift in Scheffer’s style away from the manifestly dramatic compositions and the somber palette of early French Romanticism to a more profound equilibrium between measured organization, pastel colors, and crisp design, which one critic likened to the "Roman School of Raphael," but which ultimately derived from Scheffer’s thoughtful rapprochement, at mid-career, with Ingres’s style.

Scheffer’s religious subjects were the source of his international reputation during his lifetime, and, one might argue, the epitome of his genius. Christus Consolator was, after Holman Hunt’s contemporaneous Light of the World, the most popular religious image throughout the Western world during the middle decades of the 19th century. And it is probably no coincidence that a version of the picture, with its potent reference to African slavery, found its way to Boston at the height of the antebellum period.

The version of Christus Consolator now in the MIA’s collection would appear to be that first exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum in 1852, together with engravings after the composition, and again in 1856 and 1863. It had been commissioned from Scheffer in December 1850 by the future famed Harvard art historian Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908) as a wedding gift for his sister Louisa (1823–1915) and William Story Bullard (1813–1897), a principal in the Boston East India merchant firm of Bullard and Lee. Another catalyst for getting the picture to Boston was undoubtedly Charles Callahan Perkins (1823–86), the wealthy Boston artist, historian, and founder of the Museum of Fine Arts who, between 1846 and 1851, studied in Scheffer’s Paris studio and already owned two of the artist’s pictures. Both Bullard and Norton are recorded as having traveled in Europe in 1851 and would undoubtedly have visited Scheffer’s studio. The two later founded one of the first poorhouses in Boston. According to a eulogy published by Bullard’s business partner, “He gradually retired from business, devoted much time to the management of charities, where his benevolence as well as his judgment was exercised, and in his summer home sought out and ‘succored, helped, and comforted all who were in danger, necessity and tribulation,’ shunning as far as might be all publicity.” Bullard’s son, Francis (1862–1913), was also a patron of the arts and a distinguished benefactor of the Boston museum.

How the picture made its way westward is a matter of conjecture. Pastor David J. Nordling (1878–1931), the next recorded owner of the painting, was a native of the Midwest, although he was the pastor of a congregation in Bridgeport, Connecticut, from 1913 to 1915. If the Bullard family disposed of the picture after Francis’s death in 1913, or Louisa’s in 1915, Nordling might well have acquired it in New York, then the center of the art trade. Pastor Nordling subsequently resided in Geneva, Illinois (1915–29), and Dassel, Minnesota (1929–31). Following Nordling’s death in 1931, the picture was donated by his widow to the Gethsemane Lutheran Church.

Fast forward: in August 2007 the present pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church, the Rev. Steve Olson, asked the author of this note for advice on how to preserve and authenticate a painting, which had, for some time, languished in a storage area and was in need of serious conservation. Suggesting this course of action was MIA benefactor and former trustee the Rev. Richard Hillstrom, who knew the Rev. Nordling from his youth in Dassel. Pastor Olson’s immediate concerns were the preservation of the picture and finding a home for its display that would be accessible to the people of Minnesota. My immediate response was disbelief that a painting by Ary Scheffer had found its way to rural Minnesota and for 70 years was completely unrecognized. How pleasant the surprise upon seeing a marvelous and authentic exercise by this master in the vault area of a Wells Fargo Bank in Dassel! After a year of careful research and deliberation, the church decided to donate the painting to the MIA, which, in turn, has undertaken the conservation and reframing of this significant Minnesota legacy. It now occupies pride of place in the MIA’s 19th-century paintings galleries.

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