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King Solomon’s wisdom

The Judgement of Solomon

Valentin de Boulogne (1535-1632). The Louvre – Paris. Around 1625.

Solomon saw Yahweh in a dream. God said, ‘Ask what you would like me to give you.’ Solomon answered he was still very young and unskilled in leadership. He asked for knowledge to govern his people, and for how to discern between good and evil. God was very pleased that Solomon had asked wisdom instead of a long life for himself or a life in richness. Therefore Yahweh gave Solomon a wise and shrewd heart. But he promised for Solomon the riches he had not asked, the glory too and a long life. Solomon woke up, returned to Jerusalem and stood a long time before the Ark of the Covenant. He gave more burnt offerings to God.

Solomon judged. Once, two prostitutes came to see Solomon. One had given birth to a child and three days later the second woman also gave birth in the same house. Then while the women were alone in the house, the child of the second woman died. In the middle of the night she got up and took the son of the other in her arms while she put her own dead son to those of the first woman. The first woman presented this case to Solomon but of course the second woman protested and there was quite a dispute before Solomon. Finally, Solomon said, ‘Bring me a sword, and cut the child in two. Give half to one, half to the other woman.’ At these words the mother of the living child spoke to the king, begging him not to kill the child and give it to the other woman. Whereas the other woman said indeed to cut the child in half, since he should not belong to either of them. Then Solomon gave his decision of judgement. He said, ‘Do not kill the child. She who wants to save him is the mother.’

All Israel recognised in awe the divine wisdom for dispensing justice of King Solomon. The wisdom of Solomon surpassed the wisdom of all the kings of the East and of Egypt. He composed three thousands proverbs and over a thousand songs. He could discourse on plants, on animals and birds, reptiles and fish. He received gifts from all the kings in the world who had heard of his wisdom. The Bible said that ‘God gave Solomon immense wisdom and understanding, and a heart as vast as the sand of the sea-shore.’

Valentin de Boulogne was one of the great French masters that pursued a career in Rome. Th other painters were Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Gellée called le Lorrain (1600-1682). They died all three in Rome but Valentin de Boulogne died the youngest, at about thirty-eight years old. His picture ‘The Judgement of Solomon’ was made in his later years, around 1625, and it was in the collection of the French King Louis XIV. The court of the Sun King seems to have appreciated work of its French painters in Rome and acquired many. Claude Gellée is best known for his imaginary landscapes, some of which were painted in a mythological context. Nicolas Poussin was the most Classicist and academic painter of the three. And Valentin de Boulogne was probably the most baroque painter, inclined to very Roman style and Caravaggist pictures. But these three painters represent French academism, French rigorous composition at its best. When you look at a Valentin, a Poussin or a Claude you look for composition first.

The basis of Valentin’s composition is a large triangle or pyramid structure, positioned centrally in the picture. The top of the pyramid is the crown of Solomon. The base is the lowest border of the frame, between the two women. The sides of the triangle are formed by the outlines of the three main figures, Solomon and the two women. In a second scene, a scene with the main theme, Valentin de Boulogne painted other oblique directions by which other triangles of composition can be perceived.

There is a line made by the left mother, going from her head over the child and upwards over the lance of a soldier, to the upper border of the frame. In the space to the left of this line we find another triangle, comprising the woman and the soldier that grasps the child. Perpendicular to this left oblique line we discover the line of Solomon’s outstretched arm.

To the right of the picture however, there is more calm and calm is indicated in paintings by vertical and horizontal lines, not by oblique lines. So the woman holds herself upright even though she kneels, and two old, wise counsellors stand to this side, to emphasise the vertical directions. These lines are all of course chosen by purpose instead of by pure intuition. The difference between the directions of the lines to the left and to the right support the emotions expressed in the painting.

The strong emotions of the painting are mostly situated on the left. Solomon judges in a quick, terribly tragic command to kill a child. A soldier, represented as an executioner or as a butcher, seizes the child and the woman bows in the effort of retaining the baby child. Here is a clash of emotions; here is the conflict, the tension, and the swift decision of tragedy. So Valentin de Boulogne used here intersecting, crossing and unsupported oblique lines that are not parallel to the main directions of the picture. Oblique lines indicate always action, movement, energy in a painting. Valentin de Boulogne’s picture is a spectacular example of the Baroque design of using such oblique lines to support expression of emotions. On the other side of the picture, on the right side, Valentin showed a serene and loving woman, holding her hands to her breast in a gesture of resignation. This woman abandons her child to save it. On this side is not action, energy, and speed of decision making. So Valentin positioned the mother in a position where she kneels in humility as well as two old men that seems still to be engaged in thinking while the executioner already grasps the child. Even Solomon’s left arm and his sceptre are vertical lines here and so are the curtains whose vertical folds are the most visible in this part of the picture.

Valentin de Boulogne enforced the pyramid structure of Solomon’s throne even more. He painted the body of a dead boy child at Solomon’s feet. The body is longer than the base line feet cushion, so forming or adding to the base line of the central pyramid. This boy could be either an earlier victim, or, more probably, the vision of the real mother of the child, the woman of the right, the precognition of her own child killed.

Valentin de Boulogne used strong structure and strong colours in his painting. In the patterns of colours also we can discern symmetries and structure. The woman of the left has her back half bare and Valentin let light come from the lower left so that this nudity offers a bright area of colour in the painting. To the right, the mother has a very low neckline in her dress and she wears a white apron. These two areas, equally bright, nicely balance the same colours. They also settle the central pyramid firmly as the left and right flesh colours are linked by the equal flesh colour of the child at Solomon’s feet. So it was also by colour that Valentin de Boulogne linked the two women, over the image of the dead child.

There is a sub-scene on the left of the frame. Here also, Valentin brought balance in the masses of colour. The bright colour of the woman’s back is balanced here by the darker area of the bare chest and arm of the executioner. Remark also how skilfully and intelligently Valentin balanced the oblique poise of the woman by a counter-movement of the executioner. Although the woman leans over much, it is as if the executioner holds her in equilibrium. That impression however is only achieved by the composition of lines, of directions of the bodies.

Valentin de Boulogne had learned from Caravaggio in Rome. His own contrasts between light and dark are spectacular, but less pronounced than in Caravaggio’s scenes. Valentin used more figures generally in his pictures than the great Roman master, and that fact tends to decrease somewhat the striking tension in a picture. But it suffices to look at the woman with the child and at the executioner, to discover the vigour with which Valentin de Boulogne developed sense of volume using only chiaroscuro, colour shading, and contrasts between lighter zones and darker ones. Like seen in most Caravaggio’s paintings, Valentin painted the background of ‘Solomon’s Judgement’ very dark and that feature of course supports the dramatic tension of the representation of the figures, and draws the attention of the viewer to the figures.

Valentin de Boulogne painted a picture that needs to be seen in a rapid movement of the eyes. Then the viewer will perceive immediate action, the decisive command of Solomon and the executioner’s swift response. Valentin expressed action by the crossing of oblique lines in his composition and by the attitudes of the figures. We know that an outstretched arm, a grasping of a child, as depicted, are brusque movements. Valentin showed just these and therefore the picture has a striking immediacy in the display of emotions. But a painting is also a static picture. When movement is too much emphasised and does not have at least some static quality, then the viewer will soon sense that something is missing or wrong in the picture. Movement is direct and very visible Valentin’s ‘Solomon’s Judgement’. But the viewer knows that such a movement cannot be sustained. When he or she continues anyhow to look at the painting, the sense of movement becomes so strong that after a while it will be perceived as being unnatural. Only very great painters know how to present movement in their pictures and still give that representation a static character that makes the painting acceptable, realistic, balanced also in motion, even when the viewer looks at it for longer periods. Valentin’s Solomon is a little too much in immediate action. Valentin de Boulogne certainly knew this aspect, but he may have been experimenting or still learning.

Valentin de Boulogne painted a strong scene of powerful emotions. He was a very Baroque painter in expression. He used warm colours, not much blue but for a diluted grey-blue hue. The colours lock into each other harmoniously. He was dedicated to chiaroscuro and to more forceful contrasts between light and dark than Nicolas Poussin or Claude Gellée would ever admit to. He showed in a more gripping way emotions than these more academic Baroque Classicists who presented more austere views. In that, Valentin de Boulogne was closer to the Flemish painter Rubens, to a great feeling for composition but to greater intuition and freedom of expression of emotions than Poussin or Claude.

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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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