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The Book Esther

Mordecai son of Jair lived in Susa during the reign of King Ahasuerus, a king we now call Xerxes. Ahasuerus reigned over an empire that stretched from India to Ethiopia from out of his capital Susa. Mordecai had a dream and saw in a great turmoil of earthquakes two great dragons come forward. At the sound of their throat every nation prepared for war and a great darkness came on the earth. But then the righteous cried out to God and a great river flowed from the cries. The sun rose and light came. The humble were raised up and they devoured the powerful. Mordecai awakened from the dream and wondered what it meant.

Mordecai lived at Ahasuerus’ court with two of the king’s eunuchs called Bigthan and Teresh. He got to know of their designs to assassinate King Ahasuerus and he warned the king. The two officers were tortured and confessed. The king then appointed Mordecai to an office at his court and loaded him with presents. But Hannan son of Hammedatha the Agatite, who was in high favour with the king, was determined to do injury to Mordecai in revenge of the king’s two officers.

In those days Ahasuerus organised a banquet for all of his officers, commanders and ministers to show his splendour. Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the king’s palace too. The feasting lasted seven days and on the seventh day Ahasuerus ordered the queen crowned with the royal diadem to come to the banquet. But Queen Vashti refused to come. The king then asked to his officers-of-state what had to be done. They called in expert lawyers and jurists. One of them called Memucan replied that not only the king but also all of the officers had bene wronged. So an edict should be issued to the effect that Vashti was never to appear again before King Ahasuerus and that the king would confer her royal dignity to a woman of more worth. The king did as Memucan advised and repudiated Vashti. He sent letters to all his nations, ensuring that every husband should be master in his own house.

The king’s gentlemen-in-waiting searched on the king’s behalf for beautiful young virgins and commissioners were sent out to bring all these to the citadel of Susa under the custody of Hegai the king’s eunuch. In the citadel of Susa Mordecai had brought up a girl called Hadassah, otherwise called Esther, his uncle’s daughter, who had lost her father and mother. Mordecai had adopted her and the girl had a very beautiful face and a nice figure. Esther too was taken to the palace. The girl pleased Hegai and won his favour. Esther had not told she was a Hebrew, since Mordecai had forbidden her to do so. Each girl had to appear before the king. Each girl could take with her whatever she wished from the royal palace. The next day she would be entrusted to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s officer and custodian of the concubines in another harem but unless the king was particularly pleased with her she did not go to the king anymore.

When Esther was brought to Ahasuerus in the tenth month, called Tebeth, of the seventh year of Ahasuerus’ reign, the king liked Esther better than any of the other women. He set the royal diadem on her head and proclaimed her queen instead of Vashti. The king then gave a great banquet for Esther.

Shortly afterwards the king promoted Hannan son of Hammedatha, so that Hannan received precedence over all other officers of the state. Everybody used to bow low when Hannan appeared, as such was the king’s command. But Mordecai refused to bow or to prostrate himself. Hannan became very furious at this and when he heard what race Mordecai belonged to, he made up his mind to wipe out all the Jews. Hannan told the king that the Jews were still an unassimilated nation in his empire. He asked the king to sign the destruction of Israel. He told Ahasuerus he was ready to pay ten thousand talents of silver to the royal treasury to please the king. Ahasuerus took his signet ring and gave it to Hannan, telling the officer to keep the money and do whatever he liked to the people. Hannan used Ahasuerus’ signet ring to sign letters sent to all nations to order the annihilation of all the Jews in the kingdom. Consternation reigned then in the city of Susa. Mordecai tore his garments and put on sackcloth and ashes.

Mordecai then went to the chancellery but was not allowed to enter. Mordecai wailed and mourned. Esther was him from her window and she sent Hathach, an officer whom the king had appointed to wait on her, to hear what had happened and what caused Mordecai’s distress. Hathach spoke to Mordecai and then told Esther. Mordecai asked Esther to plead for the Jews to the king. But Esther said that anyone who approached the king unsummoned would die, and the king had not summoned her fort he last thirty days. But Mordecai answered via Hathach that she should not suppose that she would be the only Jew to escape. She should not persist to remain silent at such a time. Her family would surely perish and maybe she had come to the throne for just an event such as this. Esther then told Mordecai to assemble all the Jews of Susa for her, to pray and to fast for three days. She would do the same and then got o the king in spite of the law. Mordecai did so, and all the Hebrews prayed to their God.

After three days Esther put on her best dress and showed joy and love on her face. She passed door after door of the palace and found herself finally in the presence of the king. He was sitting on his royal throne, dressed in all his robes of state that glittered with gold and jewels. He looked full of anger and saw Esther. Esther fainted and sank to the floor. Ahasuerus sprang from his throne, took her in his arms and soothe her when she recovered. He put his golden sceptre on her neck and told her to speak out. She lauded the king then, but fainted again. The king was really alarmed then and asked her what mattered. Ahasuerus said to Esther that she would be granted what she wanted, even if it were half his kingdom. Esther merely asked to invite Hannan and her to the banquet she had prepared. So the king and Hannan came to the banquet that Esther had prepared and during the feast the king repeated his promise. But Esther merely asked again for the king and Hannan to come to a banquet the next day. Hannan was still angered at the sight of Mordecai. The wife of Hannan, Zeresh, and all his friends told him to ask the king to have Mordecai hung on a gallows in the morning. Hannan erected such a huge gallows in front of his house.

Hannan went to see the king. Ahasuerus had just read in his books how Mordecai had saved him from the plot to assassinate him and he had found out that Mordecai had received almost nothing for this. So he asked Hannan what the right way was to treat a man that the king wished to honour. Hannan thought the king wanted to honour him, Hannan, so he said that such a man deserved royal robes, and a horse from the king’s stables. Then the man should be arrayed and led on horseback through the city market, with the noblest of the king’s officers proclaiming, ‘This is the way a man is treated that the king wishes to honour.’ Ahasuerus ordered Hannan to do so for Mordecai. So Hannan had to array Mordecai and lead him through the city square. After that, Hannan was in discomfiture and Zeresh told him that he was beginning to fall and Mordecai to rise.

Hannan went to the second banquet of Ahasuerus and Esther. Now Esther spoke out. She asked the king to grant her her life, and the lives of her people. She said she had been handed over to annihilation with her people. Ahasuerus then asked who was the man that had thought of doing such a thing. Esther told it was Hannan. The king stood up in a rage and ran into the palace garden, whereas Hannan stayed behind to beg Queen Esther for his life. When the king returned he found Hannan sprawled across the coach where Esther was reclining, so he thought Hannan was going to rape the queen in his own palace. One of the officers said there was a gallows at the house of Hannan, prepared for Mordecai. ‘Hang Hannan on it’, said the king and so was done. Then the king’s anger subsided.

That same day the king gave Esther Hannan’s house. The king gave his signet ring, taken from Hannan, to Mordecai and Esther gave Mordecai the charge of Hannan’s house. The king allowed Queen Esther and Mordecai to write letters to all his nations stating that the Jews had the right to assemble in self-defence and to annihilate any armed force that might attack them. This way the Jews could strike down their enemies. The Jews slaughtered thousands of men. The days of the rehabilitation were proclaimed as days of festivity, the days of Purim. Queen Esther, daughter of Abihail, wrote a second letter to observe these days of Purim. Mordecai became next in rank to Ahasuerus. He was a man held in high respect. He cared for the welfare of his race.

Esther and Mordecai

Aert De Gelder (1645-1727). Szépmúvészeti Múzeum – Budapest. 1685.

Aert De Gelder was a Dutch painter from the city of Dordrecht, born at the end of 1645. He first studied with Samuel van Hoogstraten but then also became, from 1661 to 1667, one of the last pupils of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn in Amsterdam. He was very much influenced by Rembrandt’s style and like his master he took much to scenes from the Old Testament. He was however a lighter-charactered man. He also applied a lighter palette than Rembrandt overall. Aert De Gelder painted with his brush, with the hard other end of brushes, with palette knives, and even with his thumbs and fingers. He thus showed more texture still than Rembrandt. De Gelder did not have to live by his art and worked much for his own pleasure. He painted into the eighteenth century, introducing a few new mannerist elements, which brought him to the Rococo era, but he never forgot the pictures of Rembrandt. De Gelder died in 1727 in Dordrecht. He painted an ‘Esther and Mordecai’, which is now in the Museum of Fine Arts of Budapest, Hungary.

De Gelder shows in his picture of Esther how Mordecai pleads with Esther to go to king Ahasuerus to ask him to withdraw the edict of Hannan. In the Bible story Mordecai never sees the Queen in person; he speaks to her only through the intercessor Hathach. The essential element of the story is however the pleading of Mordecai and de Gelder painted that theme.

Esther was Queen of Susa. She is wonderfully dressed. De Gelder gave her the very heavy several robes of a Dutch lady and he painted a veil over her head. She wears pearls around her neck and pearl earrings at her ears. She sits in a huge armchair and was reading from a book when Mordecai entered. Mordecai is dressed in black, so that he almost blends with the background. Mordecai is bent with age and with the reverence he now owns to the Queen. He has an intelligent face, a long face with a long beard; but he is not very old. He also wears a black hat. Of Mordecai the viewer only sees his face and hands. Mordecai’s lips do not move but hi hands tell the story. He opens his arms and the fingers of his right hand in a gesture of respect but he makes clear his intentions with the pointing and moving fingers of his left hand. He looks at Esther but does not really dares to look in her eyes. Esther looks in astonishment at Mordecai but she has to grasp with her left hand the chair in which she sits, and seems to go to her heart with her right hand in sudden fright. This hand asks whether it is really her that Mordecai implores to peak for the Jews to the king. Aert De Gelder painted Esther like the Bible described her when she went to Ahasuerus, ‘Rosy with the full flush of her beauty, her face radiated joy and love; but her heart shrank with fear G38 .’ Such is Esther in De Gelder’s painting. He painted her as a fine Dutch girl, well in the flesh and satisfied, but who suddenly receives a message of tragedy. She could be a tradeswoman of Dordrecht hearing of a disaster that has happened to one of her merchant ships. De Gelder used the hands of his personages to tell in a vivid way the whole scene of the pleading to Esther.

De Gelder painted ‘Esther and Mordecai’ entirely in the style of Rembrandt. There is no background but merely the black or darkest brown of a room behind the figures. De Gelder used only ochre, yellow, brown and dark grey colours; he used no blue, no green. The faces of the two figures stand ou against this darkness and so does the fine dress of Esther. De Gelder apparently had all his joy in painting the heavy, rich robes of Esther. He enlivened the scene further, more than Rembrandt would have done in his later years, by showing a red carpet on the table and the open book contrasts well in its brighter hues against this red area. The yellow, red and brown hues on Esther, placed against the dark background, look even brighter then to golden hues and among this gold Esther’s soft face with its gentle round features and soft cheeks, is the more prominent in the light. Aert De Gelder played of course fully on the contrasts between light and dark, which is particularly fine in these golden hues, as he had seen from Rembrandt. From Rembrandt also De Gelder had learnt to show the instant in gestures and looks. These express the narrative in the content and the moment. De Gelder was indeed one of Rembrandt’s most faithful followers and admirers.

Esther before going to Ahasuerus

Aert de Gelder (1645-1727). Alte Pinakothek. Munich. 1684.

Aert De Gelder painted another picture of Esther. ‘Esther preparing to meet Ahasuerus’ dates from somewhat before the picture of ‘Esther and Mordecai’. This scene is rather unusual, though other painters have painted on this particular scene also. Esther prepares for her special, un-called for meeting with the King of Susa. She is dressed up in the fashion prevalent in the seventeenth century in Holland and not as an oriental Queen. Her servants bring the last touch to her long veil. The episode of this preparation is but told in a few short words in the Bible. Yet the scene is one of expectancy and of tension for Esther does not know how Ahasuerus will receive her. Esther may still seduce the King by her beauty and impress him by her wonderful clothes but she may also los by impertinence, be rebuked by the King for having come unsummoned, fall in disgrace or even be executed.

De Gelder did not paint Esther as a fine, slim, elegant young woman. Like in other paintings of his, she looks rather like a plump, well-filled, short and squat Dutch merchant’s daughter or merchant’s wife. She should be well into her thirties or forties. We can also not say that her waiting women or servants are fine, nice young women. They are richly dressed in heavy robes also but their faces are not gracious. De Gelder imagined the women of the town of Dordrecht in the position of Esther. De Gelder painted for himself and lived much as a recluse when it came to painting. He was apparently more satisfied with the life and people he knew around him than with imaginary beauty. This preference for reality was a recurrent feature in Ditch art of the century.

De Gelder however was a fine painter. He painted Esther and especially hr dress in marvellous detail. He used a pyramid composition on Esther. She is flanked by two servants, which form the wider base of the pyramid. Her hair and elaborate, veiled headdress are made up so high that they form the upper point of the triangle and from there descend the lines of the veil into the traditional structure also. The transparent veil over Esther catches the eye of the viewer but also the heavy brocades on Esther’s dress are well rendered. De Gelder’s greatest talent was however in how well he showed the tissues in this painting. The viewer has really an immediate physical impression of the heavy cloth, as if one could truly feel the materiality of the textures at one’s fingers.

De Gelder continued to paint in Rembrandt’s hues in this picture of Esther. He used orange, brown, yellow and grey hues in a varied palette in tone and intensity. He brought brightness in Esther’s face and surrounded her by the lead-white for which also Rembrandt had been so famous. The fine, transparent, white veil is a flimsy protection for Esther and yet it confines her world and isolates her from the people around her. In his composition De Gelder positioned Esther and her maids-in-waiting to the left side of the frame instead of in the middle, also a somewhat unusual, asymmetric structure. But then he could show other servants around a basin of water from which Esther has washed. The water is a symbol of purity. Esther was compared in old times with the Virgin Mary and in ancient paintings of the Madonna and Child one also finds references to purity through symbols like the pail of water. De Gelder re-discovered the symbol. He painted this scene however in the background, in sombre tones, to the right of the picture, as if to indicate that these were but old symbols and now past. Esther’s purity and innocence also will be lost as she goes to the King.

Esther before her Meeting with Ahasuerus

Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn (1606-1669). National Gallery of Canada. Ottawa. Ca. 1633.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn also painted the scene of Esther preparing to go to Ahasuerus, like Aert De Gelder. Rembrandt’s picture is however of fifty years earlier than the one of De Gelder. Yet, the painting of Rembrandt seems the one that is the most innovative. In comparing two paintings like these one can distinguish the true genius from the great painter.

Rembrandt showed his Esther seated and being prepared by an elder servant. He used a simple pyramid structure of light for his portrait, but did not need a long white veil to strongly support and make very obvious that structure like in the painting of De Gelder. His pyramid is a triangle of light in his picture and we see the portrait of Esther in the triangle of bright light in the centre of the painting. Esther’s face sparkles with light and Rembrandt brought these flashes of light in fine lines of white colours also on the sleeves of her shirt. Esther’s white short comes through her red robe at the arms and here Rembrandt brought almost Impressionist brushstrokes of white. Rembrandt’s genius was often in his use of utter bright light lead white on dark backgrounds and here also he worked this white judiciously in certain places of his picture. In fact, he supported his major triangle of Esther also with these white areas for we have at the top of the pyramid the face of Esther and lower down her two white arms, then lower still the bright patches on her knees. These areas also follow the lines of the pyramid.

Aert De Gelder painted the robes of Esther in all detail and he placed Esther parallel to the viewer, facing the viewer. He also applied a triangle structure. But compared to Rembrandt’s picture we miss in De Gelder’s painting the slight variation of forms, the modulation and softening of the strong structure that shows the difference between a great and an inspired picture. Rembrandt’s Esther sits with her body not parallel to the viewer but facing the right. She turns her face to look at the viewer, thus looks more natural and less static. De Gelder’s Esther does not look at the viewer but she looks sideways, avoiding the viewer and remaining distant and inside her own life. Rembrandt’s Esther is more open and expectant, also more coquettish. Esther also does not look straight onto the viewer in Rembrandt’s picture; it is as if she has been surprised by somebody or something in the direction of the viewer, but then something just next to him or her, or behind. Still, as she looks in the direction of the viewer, the viewer has an impression of a closer Esther. As in so many of his paintings, Rembrandt has made a portrait which is always a quite static scene of little movement in gestures of the figures but he nevertheless created a fine grasp of an instant of time, and a fragment of action. Rembrandt’s genius lies thus in his representation of the moment, perpetuated in a timeless picture. Here, Rembrandt reaches this effect with the position of only Esther’s face, which shows very efficiently a sudden glance and thus the moment. Aert De Gelder has just not been able to show the same opposition of moment and perpetuity even though he certainly tried. He succeeded closely enough in some of his pictures but his ‘Esther preparing to go to Ahasuerus’ retains the static monumentality that stays its weakness. Rembrandt remained in this aspect the unsurpassed master.

Rembrandt’s brushstrokes of colour seem much freer, wilder even, more enthusiastic and younger, fresher than De Gelder’s. Rembrandt used on Esther’s shirt and robe a combination of impetuosity of colouring and of detailed drawing. He contrasted the fine, white strokes on Esther’s right arm and on her knees with delicate, detailed drawing of the knot on her body and on the jewel-like borders of her dress around her neck. At Esther’s neck Rembrandt detailed in several colours the borders of her robe, whereas lower down, where the viewer will scrutinise less, he only hinted at the intricate patterns of the lining with a few sudden brushstrokes. Rembrandt showed the play of light on the face and knees of Esther quite more dramatically also than De Gelder, showing his power of depiction more so than in the picture of his pupil. Yet, Rembrandt made his own Esther when he was still young, bout twenty-seven years old, whereas De Gelder painted his Esther at the age of around forty. The man of twenty-seven had more force and intuition of depiction than the man of forty. Rembrandt was at ease in his genius and could almost unknowingly create compositions that retained the impression of natural, while De Gelder had to strain himself and lacked the natural tranquillity while not entirely able to indicate the tensions of the theme.

Rembrandt placed Esther against a dark background. Yet, when he was young he used a brighter palette than in his mature years and we sense in his Esther the transition from his period of contrasting and varied hues to a more limited palette of hues. Like Aert de Gelder, Rembrandt used mainly red and brown colours, which, by the effect of light, glow into golden and yellow to his sparkling white. The background also remained brown and grey, but Rembrandt nevertheless showed more variation here than in his later years.

Like Aert De Gelder, Rembrandt painted a rich Dutch merchant’s daughter. Esther is well in the flesh, rather plump like some men prefer portly ladies. Esther may be pregnant however. We may suspect that from the way Rembrandt opened her upper robe over her under-robe. He shows her with her legs somewhat opened like pregnant women sit sometimes to ease their body around a baby. Esther holds her right hand just above the knot that hangs on her belly and that might be the symbol of her pregnancy. Her face radiates brightness in a soft, satisfied happiness and she has a look of inner victory, of private secrets of knowing. She has an inner pleasure on her face. The coquettish look she throws in the direction of the viewer is one of relaxed pride. Such radiation of subtle emotions would also have been too much for Aert De Gelder.

The Toilet of Esther

Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856). The Louvre – Paris. 1841.

Théodore Chassériau was a child prodigy in painting. At the age of eleven he entered the workshop of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, one of if not the most famous French painter of Neo-Classicism and of academicism in France. Ingres looked at Chassériau for a long time as his most gifted pupil. In 1840 Chassériau joined Ingres in Rome, where Ingres was now Director of the Medici Villa, the seat of the French Academy in Rome. When Chassériau learnt to know the pictures of Eugène Delacroix and Delacroix’ conception of freer compositions and of using wild, heavy colour combinations, he perceived that this style suited more his own Romantic aspirations. Chassériau broke with Ingres and once back in Paris he worked much on decorations for churches and governmental public buildings. Many of those frescoes have however been destroyed. In 1846 Chassériau travelled to Algeria and like other French painters before him, drew many portraits and scenes there, like Delacroix, in a fashion now called Orientalism. Chassériau was a painter of Romanticism, but of the late French such period. French painting would take other directions soon. Chassériau remained very much influenced by Ingres’ Classicism and he blended to a degree Ingres’ austerity of depiction with Delacroix’ freer style and ideas of colour. Chassériau was one of the last painters of a French generation before Realism and Impressionism really won the times and he announced the Symbolism of Gustave Moreau. He died young, at thirty-seven years.

Chassériau’s ‘Toilet of Esther’ shows references to several traditions. Chassériau painted many pictures of nudes, like the many paintings on the themes of Venus, Diana, Susanna or Bathsheba, which were made in all centuries. He also, like so many other, used a bible theme to paint a study of the female nude, a subject that usually pleases but also holds some connotation of daring for a viewer. Chassériau painted Esther like an Oriental Odalisque, even though he had not yet been to Algeria by then. He knew Egyptian frescoes and used these pictures to add a touch of orientalism in his Esther too. We can see how the servant on the right presents the box of jewels in the traditional Egyptian way, in a very formal gesture, with hands and arms high.

Théodore Chassériau painted Esther at her toilet. She makes up her hair and in a long, voluptuous movement draws her hands through her fine hair. She is a slim, elegant, fine, sensual woman with an elongated, lean body and that impression is enhanced by Esther’s long arms that reach high in a smooth, sinuous line. Chassériau painted her in light colours, in hues that are very bright in tone and he used these hues also on the white shirt and her golden cloak. He matched the colour of her hair with the yellow of that cloak. Chassériau then pushed colour in the background. He painted darker tones there, but showed the three basic colours of blue (on the left), green (in the middle) and red (on the right). Blue and green are of course separated by the yellow-white of Esther’s body, whereas the green and red, which are complementary colours that go well together, touch more but are also actually separated from each other by the brown arms of the servant. The green behind Esther has golden hints, suiting her body. Chassériau knew well the dangers of juxtaposing high-intensity hues and like Ingres, he remained dedicated to harmony. Yet, we sense a freedom from the subdued hues of Classicism break through in his paintings from 1840 on.

Chassériau had enough talent to paint in as many real details as Ingres. He showed marvellous chiaroscuro on Esther, but the transition from light to shadows is so soft in this painting that the picture remains quite flat to a high degree. Chiaroscuro in the background is practically non-existent. That also was a feature of Chassériau’s figures. He detailed finely Esther’s jewels, her pearls on her neck and arms and showed further nice details as well in the servants as in the hint of a landscape behind Esther, such as in the white flowers in the upper left. But Chassériau really had eyes and delight only in painting the nudity of Esther. She looks a little to the left, not at the viewer, in a coquettish view. She seems to be well aware of the viewer but she averts her eyes as if she were annoyed by that presence. This feeling a viewer might receive from the expression on her long face, and from her small mouth that does not smile but rather in which she closes together and protrudes her lips in defiance. Esther’s body is wonderfully curved, like an ideal Venus, and the fluid lines that Chassériau showed in her are also a feature that he liked to apply in his various pictures of nudes. Ended were the plump ladies of Rembrandt and the stout matrons of Ingres. Chassériau and Moreau would paint the slimmer seductresses of modern times. Chassériau had learned to admire the paintings of nudes from his master Ingres. Ingres’ famous Odalisque dates from 1814 and Ingres also repeatedly painted oriental nudes. But Chassériau had an altogether more Romantic, younger, new view on the female nude. Chassériau did not really live long enough to be able to break away from the examples he saw of Ingres and Delacroix but he certainly had the talent a great painter needs.

Chassériau’s ‘Esther at her toilet’ is a fine painting but one that was not innovative and visionary enough in content to be a great masterpiece, even if he brought his subject, Esther, before a nicely contrasting background of the two servants and the fine golden-green colours. Chassériau’s real novelty was in his introduction of these hard colours in the background. He inverted a tradition here that most often showed strong colours in the foreground. Like Delacroix, Chassériau tried to evolve, but he did it only very shyly.

The Swooning of Esther

Antoine Coypel (1661-1722). Le Louvre – Paris. Around 1704.

Antoine Coypel was a painter of a family of artists of France, who were all connected to the courts of the kings. His gather was Noël Coypel (1628-1707), a well-known Parisian painter who had headed from 1672 on the Académie de France in Rome and who was a Director of the Académie Royale of Paris since 1695. Antoine’s half-brother Noël-Nicolas Coypel (1690-1734) was a painter also, but he was the least famous of the family. Antoine’s son Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752) had also a famous career, being appointed in 1747 Director of the Académie Royale equally and First Painter of the king of France. He was not only a painter but also a play writer and an art critic.

Antoine Coypel received his first training from his father and also went with him to Rome from 1673 to 1675. Antoine learned to know the great Italian painters whose works were in Rome: Raphael, the Carraccis and Domenichino, and Caravaggio of course. He won a drawing price at Rome’s Accademia di San Luca. He met the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini and Carlo Maratta. While returning to France in 1676, he also studied the North Italian painters and the Venetians Titian and Veronese. He started immediately a brilliant career in Paris and was in his turn appointed in 1716 First Painter of the King. He received prestigious commissions for decoration works in Paris and in the palace of Versailles. The Coypel family of three generation of painters, Noël (1628-1707) and his sons Antoine (1661-1722) and noel-Nicolas (1690-1734), with Antoine’s son Charles-Antoine (1694-1752) were famously established and linked with the Parisian court as well as with the art academies of the capital during times of glory, splendour and wealth of the French royal regime. Their art therefore was naturally very academic.

Antoine Coypel’s ‘The Swooning of Esther’ shows not only that academicism in the style of the Coypels in general but also his own extraordinary talent. The kings of France and particularly the Ministers of Louis XIV promoted the academies. The Royal Academy of Painting was founded in 1648 in Paris and the French Academy in Rome in 1666. Scientific academies also were founded then and the first Dictionary of the French Academy was published in 1694 after that academy had been founded in 1634. Antoine Coypel was a distinguished member of this establishment, so he had always to deliver imposing and dignified paintings.

The composition of the ‘Swooning of Esther’ is on a strong pyramid structure. We see Esther fainting and servants flank her. King Ahasuerus supports her, so that the mass in the centre forms a wide triangle. The top of that triangle is the high, white feather on Ahasuerus’ headdress, added by Coypel purposefully to heighten the top of the pyramid. Coypel then showed Esther in light colours, surrounded by darker areas so that her fine figure would be more easily perceived and recognised by viewers. Coypel emphasised the base of the pyramid by painting a dark brown-red oriental tapestry on the marble floor and since the marble is of a lighter grey colour also, the masses of sombre colour around Esther from all the more a separate entity. If Coypel had only shown this scene, the painting would have had too strong and too obvious structure, and the picture would have lacked variety. So the painter added the figure of the Persian dignitary Hannan on the right and he balanced that figure on the left with a fire stand. These two areas of colour balance the pyramid and make this structure a little less overpowering. Finally, Coypel also had to balance the lighter lower colours of the marble floor, so he painted an open window in the hall of the Palace of Susa and showed a lighter sky. Painting such open views through windows or doors of loggias was also a very traditional means to create space in a painting and it allowed Coypel also to show some of his talents at landscape painting. The trick with such traditional means was ‘to get away with it’, to place such elements of style in such a natural way that the viewer had not a perception of cold artifice. Coypel succeeded brilliantly in that. All in all, Coypel applied a design that could not be more academic and that could be explained with simple logic, as we did above, by showing the classic features of style that a painter could use, by using the style elements that were taught in the academies of France.

Antoine Coypel also used fine, harmonising hues. He stayed with the nice brown, orange and deep red hues that suit well any environment of large halls with white walls, red curtains and golden candelabras. He brought golden touches discreetly here and there too in his picture. He contrasted cleverly the lighter tones of Esther’s magnificent dress with the background. He painted Esther’s face and décolleté in very shrill, bright light and since her face is also almost in the centre of the painting, that face draws first attention. If a viewer looks thus at Esther’s face, his or her eyes will follow the direction of her inclined head towards Ahasuerus and then again Ahasuerus’ look towards Esther and also to he faces of the servants on the left will sway the view of the viewer over Esther again. Later still, the viewer will discover Hannan who holds the edict against the Jews in his hands, and from Hannan eyes will go to the fire stand on the left side. The edict will be burned.

If the structure of the middle scene is a pyramid, there is also a strong direction of the faces and looks of the servants, over Esther and Ahasuerus, which follow the left diagonal of the frame. This direction goes, by the faces, upwards and this gives a particularly fine elevating impression of spiritual uplifting to the viewer, an effect that was also promoted by the academy as one of the finest moods in paintings. This line is then further enhanced in the right upper corner, where Coypel showed the oblique lines of the massive throne of the king. Hannan is excluded from the centre scene and from this elevating impression, so that the viewer perceives him all the more as the odd-man-out, as the person that really does not belong to the intimacy of Esther, her servants and Ahasuerus. There is empathy between the centre figures but Hannan does not belong to that court. Besides the strong academic design of the painting, the viewer should not forget the fine colours of the painting, the details rendered in a very skilled and accomplished way, and the delicate way in which Coypel showed the narrative of Esther’s fainting. Antoine Coypel masterly modulated the hues of his colours in tone and intensity. The mood that his colours evoke in viewers is of warmth and empathy, since the browns and reds dominate. There is hardly any blue or green in the picture, but also no black. All colours are varied in shades and the chiaroscuro on the folds of the robes, on Esther but also on Hannan, are painted as best as can be.

Antoine Coypel showed only a subdued, soft light in his picture. The light comes from the left front, and Coypel may have suggested it to come from the left side, from the coal burner. In the scene, Ahasuerus hurries down his throne to succour Esther. He steps towards the left, towards the f ire of his passion. Coypel suggests by the fire the emotions of Ahasuerus. The king’s concern is however finely shown and although the scene may have a very strong confining structure, Coypel succeeded well in showing movement and action in his painting. He drew Esther forceless in her servants’ hands. She holds her arms open and Ahasuerus cannot but go into those arms. He takes her delicately, courteously. Her servants support her and the pity shows on their faces. The body of Esther slumps lifelessly but Coypel then suggested her fine lines in female curves. He balanced her head that falls to the right of the frame pictorially with her knees, over which hangs and orange part of her robe, also to the right. Coypel was a master of equilibrium in colours and structure and yet all this was done so naturally as if nothing was artificial in his scene. Movement and moment are even shown also in the figure of Hannan. Even though this Persian dignitary stands still and massively in the right corner, we sense the surprise in his face and he also seems to thrust forward the papers of the edict rather than merely holding them. He stands rigidly, but rigidly of surprise and shock, not by error of depiction. Finally, from the fire on the left grow smoke fumes so that even here Coypel suggested some sense of movement. That movement then points to the landscape. Coypel contrasted the lively scene of the personages with the heavy architectures of the loggia door, of the large throne and of the curtains hanging further up.

It is easy to underestimate or even to denigrate a painting such as Antoine Coypel’s ‘The Fainting of Esther’. Such paintings are rather painted in sombre hues, which hit the viewer less immediately. They are discreet and warm colours. The picture of Coypel is not spectacular but very subtle in depiction. The contents of his painting have been designed to represent the scene of ancient times, of times of heavy clothes and tapestries, of times of former regimes of wealth that exploited the people that were not around the king at the court. The decorations are such as we now avoid in our rooms with large white and black surfaces and of hygienic forms. Yet, for the style analyst these paintings are a delight and when one makes abstract of some of the impression of old, the paintings of Coypel are indeed masterpieces. Antoine Coypel composed his painting intelligently and with love and keen observation. He treated his personages with sympathy. His colouring is fabulously rich and varied. The ‘Fainting of Esther’ is a silent masterpiece that once one studies it a little becomes sheer charm and subtlety for the viewer. How wonderfully discreet must this painting have hung or stood in a hall of Versailles or of the Louvre, waiting patiently to be discovered and admired. It stood humbly to win its glory at the eye of the interested, then captured and enamoured art amateur. Antoine Coypel showed that, whatever one may currently claim superiority for the divine impetuosity of lonely genius artists in contemporary expressive art that is supposed to show the emotions of the spur of the moment in rapid and hard colours, that academicist painting can be glorious and extremely rewarding to the lover of paintings.

Esther chosen by Ahasuerus

Filippino Lippi (ca. 1457-1504). Musée Condé. Chantilly. Ca. 1475-1480.

The Fainting of Esther before Ahasuerus

Filippino Lippi (ca. 1457-1504). The Louvre. Paris. Ca. 1475-1480.

The Triumph of Mordecai

Filippino Lippi (ca. 1457-1504). National Gallery of Canada. Ottawa. Ca. 1475-1480.

Esther at the Palace Gate

Filippino Lippi (ca. 1457-1504). National Gallery of Canada. Ottawa. Ca. 1475-1480.

Filippino Lippi painted in Florence around 1475 a series of panels on the story of Esther for two ‘cassoni’ or marriage chests. He was still young then, about eighteen years old. He had lost his father, the great Filippo Lippi, when he was twelve and he had travelled from Spoleto where his father had painted his last frescoes in the cathedral of the town, and where he himself had finished the works, to Florence. In Florence he would study with Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510). One of his first own commissions in Florence was to complete in 1481 the frescoes of Masaccio and Masolino in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine. He painted other major works, for which his father would have been proud. But he died in the prime of his art, merely forty-seven years old. Filippino Lippi also painted in Rome, where he made in 1488 the frescoes of the Carafa Chapel in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. In his later years he compensated his lack of power of depiction by profusion of ornaments and bizarre decorations, continuing also the change in the style of Botticelli. He evolved his tastes for ornament to a sophisticated form of new mannerism. Giorgio Vasari tells in the ‘Lives of the Artists’ that Filippino Lippi also designed the marble monument for the tomb of his father in Spoleto. The Spoletans had not wanted to release the tomb of such a famous painter, but Lorenzo de Medici anyhow had paid for a fine tomb. Giorgio Vasari also wrote that Filippino Lippi was of a lovable nature, always courteous, affable and gentle. He died within a few days from a raging fever. Sandro Botticelli would even outlive him.

Florentine society of the fifteenth century definitely sought fine art for its town, palaces and churches. When a young couple, sons and daughters of wealthy merchants, married, they more often than not first obtained apartments in their parents’ houses, which were more the sturdy fortified family lodgings than palaces. Florentine palaces were not very gracious, neither outside nor inside. They were massive square buildings with high and heavy walls in which few highly-set windows were heavily protected with iron bars. They looked like massive fortresses, tall, and with very thick walls. They had a patio however and the apartments received more light from that inner courtyard than from the outside, from the narrow streets. Their finest parts were this interior space and sometimes also the balustrades, which could be used for defence since they hang out over the walls but from which one had a fine view onto the streets where sometimes magnificent processions passed. The balustrades ran high also, almost at the top of the buildings, along the façades. The married couple sought some elegance and colouring in the interior decoration of its rooms. Walls could be covered with elegant frescoes. Curtains and tapestries could be hung. Fine furniture was brought in. It was a habit also to paint scenes on the panels of the doors and on the cupboards. The lady of the apartment protected expensive dresses by keeping them lying in chests or cassoni. The cassoni were often painted also. When the furniture disappeared, the painted panels were recuperated. The most famous of such decorations that have been conserved are probably the Borgherini panels, made for this family of Florentine merchants by various painters in the sixteenth century.

Equally famous are the six cassoni panels painted by Filippino Lippi that have been conserved and which are now dispersed over several museums. Painters and married couple would necessarily chose religious scenes for the panels; but scenes of the Crucifixion of Christ or other scenes of Christ’s Passion were not very sweet fro interior decoration. Nicer scenes from the Bible were often preferred. The stories of Joseph the Egyptian were exotic and had similarities to the stories of Jesus. Scenes from the book of Esther were fine too, because these also had a touch of orientalism since they happened in Persia and they lauded the courteous passion of Ahasuerus for his poor Jewish wife. Esther’s story was a Cinderella narrative avant-la-lettre. A poor girl that had been chosen to become Queen of Persia was a wonderful story. It was also a story of the loving care of a king for his wife, of her loyalty in marriage and of the nice entreaties of a wife to her husband. The story ended well, like in contemporary Hollywood films. It was a sweet scene of the court, and which Florentin merchant would not desire to be once a member of the Signoria of Florence and be in the political vicinity and of course even better still in the commercial vicinity of the Medici rulers? Like in the life of Joseph the Egyptian, symbols could be applied to Esther and Ahasuerus’ marriage. The Virgin Mary had married an elder man. She had been chosen by God among so other women and by her child she had saved the Jewish people. So, Filippino Lippi painted for two cassoni fine scenes from the Book Esther. He still worked in the workshop of Sandro Botticelli and the great master may have let his talented pupil exercise his art on chests, whereas he reserved himself for the larger paintings. Six panels have been conserved. Two large panels are one each in the Condé Museum of the castle-palace of Chantilly near Paris and one is in the Louvre. This last panel also comes from the collection of Henri d’Orléans, the Duke of Aumale, who lived in Chantilly in the eighteenth century. Two panels, apparently side panels, are in the National Gallery of Ottawa. These represent the ‘Triumph of Mordecai’ and ‘Esther at the Palace Gate’. Two other panels are in Rome, in the Galleria Casino dell’Aurora, Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi.

The cassoni panels painted by Filippino Lippi are particularly fine. They are drawn masterly and represent Florentine draughtsmanship at its best. They are painted harmoniously, finely and in somewhat subdued, warm hues that do not contrast sharply but yet remain clear well-defined. The panels show fine architecture in the scenes of an ideal world of courteousness. The Chantilly and the Louvre panels consist of three scenes each. The panel of ‘Esther at the Palace Gate’ shows a nice lady dressed in red robes, walking elegantly by the palace gates of a North-Italian town. Here Lippi painted a fine landscape of soft sloping meadows and a few trees, whereas the palace resembles the Florentine town fortifications. In the panel ‘The Triumph of Mordecai’ Lippi showed Mordecai on horseback, being led by Hannan. The scene here is also set inside a renaissance fortified castle and Lippi could paint a wonderful, dark horse with Mordecai, equally dressed in a red robe, crowned like a king. The two panels thus show figures dressed in red, which could mean that they were on each side of a chest and showed symmetrically the same red areas. The figures are dignified Florentine personages, drawn in all detail with fine skill.

The Chantilly panel shows on the left the feast of Ahasuerus, at which the king summoned Queen Vashti. On the right side is Vashti’s own banquet. In the middle scene, Ahasuerus sits on his throne. His councillors are with him and he receives a procession of beautiful girls among which he will choose Esther for his bride. Esther just passes before him. There are also three scenes in the panel of the Louvre. On the left side, Esther talks to the miserable Mordecai. In the right part Ahasuerus has granted Esther’s wish to save the Jews and we see the bad councillor Hannan hung from a tree in the background. In the middle scene, Ahasuerus again sits on his throne and Esther faints before him. In both the panels Esther is dressed in fine robes.

The two large cassoni panels of Chantilly and Paris have a simple and obvious composition. Ahasuerus sits in his throne in the centre and Filippino Lippi gave a fine impression of classic grandness by drawing a view of a colonnaded hall around the king. This hall then separates the right and left scenes. Lippi painted this architecture very open and light so that the whole gives an impression of airiness, of lightness and leisure. The hall is of a palace or of an open loggia, not of a fortified castle. In this ideal, exquisite landscape the figures move. Lippi painted all the figures finely, in detail, with wonderful chiaroscuro on all dresses so that the viewer can see easily knees bent, arms stretched, body curves in general. Lippi painted barely any shadows however, but we do see how he painted for instance in the Chantilly panel the shadows of the sides of the square columns. The sides that face the source of light are painted uniformly in white and the sides that are in the shadow are uniformly black. This is a quite naïve way to depict shadows and effects of light. Filippino Lippi had not yet remarked that shadows have colour too, other than white and black. In the two panels the background is painted in lighter hues than the foreground. This allowed Lippi to show the fine, miniature scenes there also in full detail, but in natural representations he would have had to paint here vaguer and more similar and softer hues. In later periods, painters would invert the tones and leaving the background in darker tones so that the front scene would be more immediately visible and drawn into the direct attention of the viewer. Lippi wanted the viewer also to have attention for and be able to admire the side scenes.

It is remarkable however how well the young Filippino Lippi knew already the rules of perspective and showed them in the cassoni paintings to create a wonderful, deep, far illusion of space. In the two panels the vanishing point of the perspective lines of the building is on the head of Ahasuerus, as if Ahasuerus saw the scenes and not the viewer. Nevertheless, the architectures are placed parallel to the viewer so that only the lines perpendicular to the viewer flee to the vanishing point. In composition this gives of course a very strong focus on Ahasuerus. Not only does Ahasuerus sit in the centre, on an imposing throne of royal curtains, but all liens of perspective end at him. The viewer’s attention is inexorably drawn to Ahasuerus in this composition and a male viewer easily identifies himself with the king.

There are few round forms in the pictures, but for a few arches in the background. Such round forms would have made difficult shadowing and might have interfered visually with the straight forms of the chests. There is only one round tower in the picture of ‘Esther at the Palace Gate’ and the shadowing on that tower is very hesitating. Lippi painted the cassoni scenes to remain in harmony with the forms of the chests, but maybe also because he did not yet well master the effects of light on round shapes.

Filippino Lippi apparently wanted to charm and seduce the future owners of the cassoni with his skills. He was still a young man, well known already, but still not as famous as his master Botticelli. He worked diligently at the panels with extreme care and patience, to show all the fine details of the story of Esther. He must have read the Bible and chosen the scenes that could best evoke also in the viewers the whole story of Esther, Ahasuerus and Mordecai. Admire the fine landscapes each time in the left parts of the panels. He painted stylised trees and showed, especially in the Louvre panel, that he also knew aerial perspective for he painted in darker hues the upper part of the sky. Lippi painted all the scenes in a very lively way. All the personages move and show their emotions in simple but immediately recognisable poises. In the panel of Chantilly each lady that walks by moves differently and they can be seen talking to each other or otherwise engaged in some personal act. In the panel of the Louvre, as Esther faints, all councillors of Ahasuerus incline their bodies ready to intervene and they hold their hands in surprise at their faces. In the Ottawa panel, Esther walks by the gate but she holds one hand high to pint to the heavens and she also elegantly draws on her robes so that they not hang on the ground and get dirty. In the other Ottawa panel, Mordecai sits not just on the horse; he also shows the way to Hannan with a stick. Lippi liked to tell, liked to show the action of the scenes.

The panels made by Filippino Lippi have many qualities of great art and the yare nice pictures. They were obviously painted with care, love, dedication and delight. Whether the panels were made for a member of the Medici family itself must remain a conjecture. Centuries after Filippino Lippi painted these images, they continue to inspire delight in viewers. The panels wonderfully realised their objective to please, to finely decorate chests that a courteous husband or loving father would have offered to the lady of the house. The husband would have offered the panels to a wife he respected and loved. No man without respect and love would offer such delicate beauties to his wife. So the renaissance times continue to spread and prove their message of courteous feelings among men and women.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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