The Dallas Museum of Art today announced the acquisition for its European painting collection of an early work by the French painter Guillaume Guillon Lethière (1760–1832), one of the first major artists of African descent in the history of European art. The painting, Erminia and the Shepherds, was shown at the Salon of 1795 in Paris and perfectly complements the DMA’s collection of late 18th- and early 19th-century French paintings. In style, it references the neoclassicalism that dominated the last decades of the 18th century, but also anticipates the new interest in European historical subjects that would prevail in the early 19th century. It is currently on view in the Museum’s European Painting and Sculpture galleries on Level 2.
“The Dallas Museum of Art is delighted to add this work by Guillaume Guillon Lethière to the Museum’s collection. Its acquisition is made all the more significant for our global collection for it marks the earliest work of art in the DMA by an artist of color working in the Western tradition,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, The Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art. “Erminia and the Shepherds is a beautiful addition to the DMA’s current holdings of European paintings from this time period.”
“Guillaume Guillon Lethière was the son of a French diplomat and an emancipated African slave, and he was a prominent figure in the history of French art, achieving the highest academic rank by the end of his career,” said Olivier Meslay, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs and The Barbara Thomas Lemmon Curator of European Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. “His work Erminia and the Shepherds represents the painting style prominent during the late 1700s while anticipating the romantic shift in execution and subject interest. This painting serves as an important touchstone and reference point for this key transitional moment in art history.”
Erminia and the Shepherds represents a departure from Guillon Lethière’s earliest exhibition pictures, which were in a severe neoclassical taste. It demonstrates his new attention at that moment to the meticulous description of costume and armor, as well as the beautiful still life of the wicker basket in the foreground. The shepherd’s wife and family are portrayed with an almost ethnographic attention, and Guillon Lethière carefully evokes the subject’s pastoral setting through the framing device of the vine-covered trellis and the expansive landscape at right. He would become a regular landscapist who exhibited landscapes of Italy and of Guadeloupe. The new pictorial interests evident in Guillon Lethière’s work highlight the reorientation of French painting toward a more romantic vision, inspired by medieval and renaissance literature, with a more polished and delicate appearance.
The subject of Erminia and the Shepherds is drawn from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem of the Crusades, Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme Liberata), published in 1581. The seventh canto tells the story of the Muslim princess Erminia, who falls in love with the Christian knight Tancred. Attempting to approach the Christians’ camp on horseback, she was instead forced to flee and hide, disguising herself in the armor of the fallen warrior-maiden Clorinda. Early one morning, hiding near the Jordan River, Erminia hears rustic instruments and approaches an old man who is weaving a basket, surrounded by his singing children. These shepherds were at first frightened by the sight of an armored warrior, but Guillon Lethière shows us the moment when Erminia removes her helmet to reveal that she is actually a beautiful young woman.
About Guillaume Guillon Lethière
Guillaume Guillon Lethière was the illegitimate son of Pierre Guillon of Martinique, the king’s chief prosecutor in Guadeloupe, and a Guadeloupian emancipated slave, Marie-Françoise, known as Pepeyë. Guillon Lethière was brought to France by his father at the age of fourteen to begin his studies, studying first in Rouen with Jean Baptiste Descamp and then, after 1777, in the studio of Gabriel François Doyen. In 1786, after a series of successes at the annual academic competitions, including the Second Grand Prix, he was nominated for study at the Académie de France in Rome, where he stayed until 1791. His first submissions to the Salon came two years later and continued intermittently for nearly four decades. In 1799, Pierre Guillon was able to legitimize his son and make him his heir. From that time, he added Guillon to his surname, but continued to use the name Lethière, which he had adopted on his arrival in France. In 1800 and 1801, Guillon Lethière accompanied Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, to Spain, where he worked to assemble an art collection for the imperial prince. In 1807, Lucien Bonaparte nominated Guillon Lethière for the post of director of the Académie in Rome, a post he held for nearly a decade. He ended his academic career as a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts and a member of the Institute de France.
About the Dallas Museum of Art
Established in 1903, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) ranks among the leading art institutions in the country and is distinguished by its innovative exhibitions and groundbreaking educational programs. At the heart of the Museum and its programs is its global collection, which encompasses more than 22,000 works and spans 5,000 years of history, representing a full range of world cultures. Located in the vibrant Arts District of downtown Dallas, the Museum welcomes more than half a million visitors annually and acts as a catalyst for community creativity, engaging people of all ages and backgrounds with a diverse spectrum of programming, from exhibitions and lectures to concerts, literary events, and dramatic and dance presentations.
The Dallas Museum of Art is supported, in part, by the generosity of DMA Partners and donors, the citizens of Dallas through the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, and the Texas Commission on the Arts.