Lady and Landscape (1794)
Lady and Landscape (1794)

It’s quite an adventure in itself to spend a few midsummer days in the sunny bright southern French city of Montpellier. Adding further charm to this exploit, the local Fabre Museum has brought to art lovers’ attention the works of Louis Gauffier, a French painter largely ignored in his own country for the simple reason that he never gave up his dream of Italy, where he mainly lived and worked until the end of an extremely busy — and brief — lifetime.

Though these paintings have appeared in a number of shows for the past two centuries in cities across France as well as in foreign museums, this is for the first time that an exhibition exclusively devoted to Gauffier is being held for well over six months.

Born in the town of Poitiers in western France, Gauffier’s fascination with art, even as a teenager, appeared to be so undeniable that his sensitive but also well-to-do parents encouraged him to go to Paris for higher studies at the French Academy of Arts. The miracle wouldn’t take very long to happen and in 1784, at only 22, he would win the much-coveted Roman Award in an all-Europe competition.

When he arrived in the Italian capital to attend the prize-giving ceremony, his fascination with the legendary city was so overpowering that he could not return home immediately. He stayed and worked tirelessly for six long years in Rome.

An exhibition in Montpellier is dedicated solely to a French painter largely ignored in his own country for nationalistic reasons

Gauffier’s coming back to his country of birth, following an offer by the French Academy of Arts to work as a teacher, would prove to be extremely short. After only a few months of work, he would resign and rejoin Rome, having decided to settle down there permanently.

Pauline Gauffier and Stealing Cat (1794)
Pauline Gauffier and Stealing Cat (1794)

Things however turned upside down once again when, following the French revolution in 1789 and the brutal executions of all the members of the royal family, he would often be treated as a ‘royalist’ by local art critics, because of his openly expressed views about the cruelties committed by the revolutionaries against the king, the queen and their children.

By this time married to his favourite model Pauline and father of two children, he moved to Florence in Italy, located in Tuscany, a region much-celebrated the world over for its Renaissance art, literature, philosophy and architecture movements — not to forget Machiavelli’s book The Prince, Michelangelo’s statues and Botticelli’s paintings.

Louis Gauffier was so bedazzled by the scenic splendour, but also by the magic of Florence’s history, artistic legacy and their influence upon entire European culture, that he decided to stay in this mythical city permanently. He worked hard to transfer the breathtaking beauty of the landscapes in their various forms, as well as scenes from literary works following his own imagination, on to his canvases.

Self Portrait with Pauline and Children (1793)
Self Portrait with Pauline and Children (1793)

The most enchanting aspect of Gauffier’s paintings are the detailed backgrounds of the valleys, towns, lakes and forests as well as the expressions on people’s faces, in what appears to be an unending row of scenes from Roman and Greek mythologies.

And all this within an extremely brief period, as Louis Gauffier died in 1801, at the early age of only 39.

‘The Italian Dream of Louis Gauffier’ is exhibited at the Fabre Museum, Montpellier until September 4th, 2022

The writer is an art critic based in Paris.

He may be reached on zafmasud@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 24th, 2022

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