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Jael and Sisera

Jael and Sisera

Carle Van Loo (1705-1765). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Nancy. 1732-1734.

After Ehud’s death the Israelites sinned again. So Jabin, a king of Canaan who reigned over Hazor, threatened the Israelites. The army commander of the Canaanites was Sisera. The Judge of Israel at that time was a woman called Deborah. She sent for Barak, son of Abino from Kedesh in Pahtali. She told Barak to confront Jabin and Sisera. Barak agreed to that only of Deborah would join him. So Deborah stood up and went with Barak. They encamped on Mount Tabor. Barak charged down from that mountain with ten thousand men behind him and they won the battle against Sisera’s army.

Sisera fled on foot towards the tent of Jael, the wife of Haber the Kenite. Haber had been with the tribe of Kain before and with the sons of Hobab, the father-in-law of Moses. They had lived with the Israelite community. Jael prayed Sisera in, gave him milk to drink when he asked for water and she laid him to sleep, and even covered hum with a rug. Jael, wife of Haber, then took a tent peg and a mallet. She crept softly onto the hidden Sisera. She drove the peg into Sisera’s temple, right through into the ground, shattering his temple. Sisera crumpled between her feet. Sisera had been fast asleep, worn out from the battle. When Barak arrived in pursuit of Sisera, Jael came out of her tent to meet him and she showed the dead Sisera. Then the Judge Deborah sang a song of praise to Barak and Jael.

Carle Van Loo made a painting on the theme of ‘Jael and Sisera’. The family of the Van Loo painters is remarkable. It covers five generations and two hundred years of art. The family members exercised their art from Amsterdam to Paris and from Nice, Turin, Rome, and Berlin to Madrid. The founder of the generations of artists, the first known painter of the family, was called Jacob Van Loo. He was born in 1614 in Sluis in Zeeland, a province of the Netherlands. He studied with Vermeer and Rembrandt but settled in Paris and became a member of the Royal Academy of Arts there in 1663. He died in 1670. His sons, Abraham and Jean were still born in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, but they also pursued a career in France like their father. Abraham settled first in Lyon. He converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism in Lyon in 1680 or 1681, and changed his first name from Abraham to Louis. From Lyon he moved to further south, to Aix-en-Provence and Grasse, finally he lived in nice on the Côte d’Azur. He died there in 1712. Jean van Loo also went south, to Toulon, the ancient war port of France and he became there a Royal marine painter.

Abraham-Louis had eight children among whom Jean-Baptiste (born in 1684 in Aix) and Carl Andrea, better known as Carle (born 1705 in Nice). Jean-Baptiste Van Loo took charge of his brothers at the death of his father. He travelled a lot and took his brother Carle with him. He visited Genoa, Turin, Rome, Monaco, London, and Paris. Jean-Baptiste became a member of the French Royal Academy of Arts in 1731 and he met many Italian and French painters, showing to his very talented brother all the styles of painting of his times and of previous centuries.

Carle Van Loo followed at first his brother and worked with him. He wanted to go to Rome, but his brother was ruined in the crash of the adventurer Law. Carle anyhow travelled to Rome in 1725, accompanied by his cousins Louis-Michel and François. Carle obtained the ‘Prix de Rome’ in 1725. He met in Rome François Boucher, the acclaimed painter of the French King, and he gained a first price at Rome’s Accademia di San Lucca. He left Rome for Turin, married there and returned to Paris to be accepted in his turn into the Royal Academy in 1735.

Jean-Baptiste Van Loo had six children. Among these, Louis-Michel (1707-1771), who went to Rome with Carle Van Loo, became a first painter of the King of Spain. Another son of Jean-Baptiste, Charles Amédée (1719-1795) was a painter at the service of Frederick I, King of Prussia. Thus in the eighteenth century, members of the Van Loo family served three European Kings. From Jacob Van loo born in 1614 to Jules-César Van Loo, a son of Carle, who died in 1821, the Van Loo family covered two hundred years of painting.

Among the Van Loo family of painters, Carle Van Loo was the most famous. He was born in 1705 in nice and died in 1765 in Paris. He was only seven years old when his father died but his brother Jean-Baptiste, then 28 years old, took care of the family. Together with his brother Carle was in Turin in 1713 and in Rome in 1716. In Rome he studied in the workshop of Benedetto Lutti. He retuned to France in 1720, still with his brother. He must have been already a child prodigious in painting. He made major pictures in 1723 and 1724. He travelled on his own to Italy in 1727, arriving in Rome in 1728 and he had many successes there. He worked for the Cardinals of Rome and delivered paintings for churches. He returned to Turin in 1732 and married therein 1733 with Christine Somis, the daughter of a famous family of musicians. Carle worked in Turin for the King of Sardinia. He was thus in Italy from 1712 to 1720 and from 1727 to 1734, after all quite long periods during which he saw and could learn Italian art. Carle Van Loo came back to France to live in Paris in 1734. He painted portraits of Kings and courtiers and became a very well established painter in the capital of France.

Carle Van Loo’s painting ‘Jael and Sisera’ dates from the undeniably happy years he spent in Turin around the date of his marriage. Van Loo painted religious and mythological scenes, with a preference for these last kinds of themes. ‘Jael and Sisera’ is a bible religious theme from the Old Testament, but the depiction of this theme has always been handled like an antique myth. Moreover it can be counted to the most tragic, violent themes of the art of painting, together with themes like ‘Judith and Holofernes’ or ‘David and Goliath’ or ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’. The theme of Jael and Sisera was much less painted than these other themes however, so we remark the desire for originality in Van Loo. We see the pursuing commander Barak enter a tent, invited therein by Jael. Jael shows to Barak the Sisera he has been trying to capture; and Sisera lies gruesomely killed on a bed.

The picture looks like a study made in oil on canvas for an oval decoration for the ceiling or for a lunette of a palace wall. Carle Van Loo was working for a Royal palace in Turin. His painting may well have been a design for one of the decorations in that palace. Van Loo quite finished usually his paintings in all detail and with fine, calculated and delicate brushstrokes. ‘Jael and Sisera’ does not have this touch of finish, but is rougher in colouring. We experience immediately the Baroque fluidity of the curved lines and the vivacity of the scene. There are no strict vertical; horizontal or oblique lines here, and we see instead all curved lines of cloaks, curtains, arms and hands.

Barak enters the tent and his surprise is depicted in a very theatrical way. Jael’s movements are more natural. Sisera lies killed, but also his state is more emphatically shown in the powerless arm that lies lifeless on the shield. Van Loo was a master in showing the emotions of his actors. Van Loo used subdued, almost pastel colours. We see a green-grey background and contrasting with this hue mainly the magnificent orange-red of the cloak of Barak. The only other non-green hue is the blue colour. Van Loo used it in the trousers of Barak, in the robe and in the cloak of Jael and in the shirt of the dead Sisera. The blue links the three personages of the tragedy. The blue colours are also subdued in saturation however; they are very light and not pure but blending harmoniously with the yellowish-green of the background.

Van Loo was a master in theatrical composition. In ‘Jael and Sisera’ also he definitely guides the view of the spectator. A viewer will be directly attracted by the only patch of a light, pure hue in the red cloak of Barak. The viewer’s eyes will then follow the outstretched arm of Barak. This movement continues in the pointing hand of Jael. Jael points to Sisera, to the drama of the crime of the story. The viewer’s eyes may then follow the bright area of Sisera’s back and be further attracted to the eyes of Jael. And Jael’s eyes look at Barak. Here the viewer will linger and admire the helmet of Barak, where Carle Van Loo painted a wonderful piece of gold and brilliant white. So Carle Van Loo directs the view of an onlooker all over the picture and its figures.

The figure of Barak is long and imposing. Jael bends her knees and her head comes thus quite lower than Barak’s. Finally, Sisera’s head is the top of a triangle, the base of which is the body of Barak, and in which we find the three protagonists of the scene. So in many aspects this is a strong, united composition of figures. But Van Loo brought also much relief in too strict a structure. He did that in the curved movements of the lines so that his picture remains very vivid. The rapid brushstrokes enhance a feeling of speed of execution, but also of powerful creation and expression of the idea of the painter. Carle Van Loo must have had the fever of sudden creation and in these rapid colours we feel most directly the happiness and eagerness of Van Loo’s work.

We can compare Van Loo’s picture in this way with the paintings of Tiepolo. But other pictures by Van Loo of this period are almost in the style of Watteau, whereas in other scenes he may remind us of Nicolas Poussin. Thus Carle Van Loo was an artist of many facets although he was only around thirty years old when he made this ‘Jael and Sisera’. He painted very theatrical attitudes for his figures in ‘Jael and Sisera’. And yet his picture feels quite natural. Its meaning is conveyed efficiently. The theatricality disappears in the immediacy of the communication. There is a direct correspondence between the form used, the depicted attitudes of the figures, and the meaning. This is always a feature of great expression. Van Loo linked the three actors very strongly. He made meaning very obvious and it is almost impossible to see this scene otherwise. It would be impossible to omit eye-glances, gestures and poises and still come to such direct, easy impact on the viewer. All the elements of the scene are necessary for the communication of the simple message of the story.

Carle Van Loo was a painter caught between François Boucher and Jacques-Louis David, between Nicolas Poussin and Claude Le Lorrain, between Sébastien Bourdon and Watteau. He was very much still a Baroque painter, not entirely given in to the vagaries of Rococo or to the erotic art of Boucher, never forgetting classicist restraint but dedicated to theatrical scenes of luxurious decoration. His ‘Jael and Sisera’ is a good example of the many talents and styles that Carle Van Loo could play upon.

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