The encounter of a painter from Nîmes with a Roman general

Explore the ancient times with these 18th century paintings by painter Charles-Joseph Natoire that tell the story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Zoom in on four paintings.

By Musée des Beaux-arts

Visitors' Department—Museum of Fine Arts of Nîmes

Académie (18e siècle) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

Charles-Joseph Natoire (Nîmes, 1700—Castel Gandolfo, 1777)

Born in 1700 in Nîmes, Charles-Joseph Natoire is one of the great French painters and draftsmen of the 18th century. He won the first medal for drawing at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, and then, in 1721, the Grand Prize for painting with The Sacrifice of Manoah (Le sacrifice de Manué).

Sans désignation, Etude de nu (18e siècle) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

Biography

Natoire was enrolled in the Royal Academy in 1730 and was given his first royal commission in 1734. He regularly exhibited his work at the Salon from 1737 to 1757. Appointed Director of the French Academy in Rome in 1751, he became Jean-Honoré Fragonard's master. He died in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, in 1777.

Sans désignation, Etude de figure (18e siècle) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

Royal commissions

Upon his return from Italy to Paris in 1730, Natoire received large commissions from the aristocracy and the royal court. He painted for the Palaces of Versailles and Fontainebleau, the Royal Library, and the Gobelins and Beauvais Manufactories, both tapestry factories.

Allégorie de la musique (avant 1746) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

A multifaceted painter

His patrons asked him for light subjects and new works to meet the changing interior decoration tastes of the 18th century. Natoire painted religious, historical, mythological, and allegorical subjects and produced tapestry cartoons. 

Photo AtriumMusée des Beaux-arts

The tapestry cartoons

These cartoons are key elements in the making of a tapestry. They indicate the components and colors of the work and can be made on paper or on canvas. These three tapestry cartoons are kept and exhibited in the museum's atrium.

L'Entrée de Marc-Antoine à Ephèse (1741) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

The commission

In 1740, Philibert Orry, Director of Bâtiments du Roi (the king's buildings), commissioned Natoire to produce a series of seven tapestry cartoons illustrating The Story of Mark Antony for the Gobelins Manufactory. 

L'Entrée de Marc-Antoine à Ephèse (1741) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

The making of the cycle

Between 1741 and 1756, Natoire completed only three paintings and sketches. The Gobelins manufactory in Paris wove this wall hanging twice, from 1750 to 1761 and from 1761 to 1765.

L'Entrée de Marc-Antoine à Ephèse (1741) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

The commission canceled

But France was facing the Seven Years' War and the state was running out of money. Marigny, who was administering the commission, decided to discontinue Natoire's production.

The presentation at the Salon

The Entry of Mark Antony into Ephesus (L'Entrée de Marc-Antoine à Ephèse) was the first cartoon made. It was exhibited at the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Fine Arts Academy in Paris, in 1741. Mark Antony is represented as emperor wearing a red drapery and crowned with a laurel wreath. The tapestry was produced from 1750, and a second time by the Gobelins Manufactory in 1782.

The composition

Natoire depicts many musical instruments: tambourines, cymbals, pipes, triangles, panpipes, and ancient horns. Like a long frieze, the procession is dramatized through the presence of dancers and musicians. This ancient setting was fantasized by the painter.

Le repas de Cléopâtre et de Marc-Antoine (1754) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

The Meal of Cleopatra and Mark Antony

The second cartoon, entitled The Meal of Cleopatra and Mark Antony (Le repas de Cléopâtre et de Marc-Antoine), was delivered in 1754. Natoire drew inspiration from the Greek philosopher Plutarch's account for the scene's setting. This painting is the largest of the three that were made.

L'arrivée de Cléopâtre à Tarse (1756) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

Cleopatra's Arrival at Tarsus

Cleopatra's Arrival in Tarsus (L'arrivée de Cléopâtre à Tarse) was completed in 1756. Cleopatra is portrayed according to the beauty canons of the 18th century. Her pink dress and her uncovered breast reveal all her femininity, enhanced by the red color of Mark Antony's tunic. Red is the color of love.

Evoking Egypt

To represent Egypt, Natoire chose to represent the lion on the stairs of the Cordonata, a monumental wide-ramped stair leading to the Capitoline Hill in Rome. It is a remain of the pharaonic era, just like the obelisks removed from Egyptian temples by Emperor Augustus. In the painting, this sculpture was turned into a fountain.

The figurehead

Natoire painted the golden ship with a boar's figurehead, which is mentioned in Plutarch's writings. Much later, in 1960, archaeological excavations in the Gulf of Fos, near Marseille, found an identical bronze figurehead, which is now kept in the Museum of Istres.

La paix de Tarente (1757) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

The Conclusion of the Peace of Taranto

To complete this set, the Fine Arts Museum acquired a small oil on canvas sketch in 1966. It is the fourth cartoon of tapestry series, entitled The Conclusion of the Peace of Taranto (La conclusion de la paix de Tarente), dated 1757. It will never be painted in a larger size.

La paix de Tarente (1757) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

Octavian

The peace of Taranto was achieved in 37 BC between Octavian, future emperors Augustus, and Mark Antony. This peace enabled the continuation of the Triumvirate for another five years. But it was not observed and would lead to a new Roman civil war.

La paix de Tarente (1757) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

Octavia

In this painting, Natoire portrays Octavia who is the sister of Octavian and the wife of Mark Antony. Occupying the center of the composition, Octavian is represented as the protagonist of the scene. 

Photo Atrium 2Musée des Beaux-arts

The long-term loans of the Louvre Museum

In 1872, the Museum of Fine Arts of Nîmes, then located in the Maison Carrée, received the tapestry cartoon entitled The Meal of Cleopatra and Marc Antony from the Louvre Museum.  In 1956, it received Cleopatra's Arrival at Tarsus, and in 1998, The Entry of Mark Antony into Ephesus, as a long-term loan by the Louvre.  

Vénus et Adonis ou Aurore et Céphale (1740/1750) by Charles Joseph NATOIREMusée des Beaux-arts

Venus and Adonis

Finally, among its collections, the museum  also keeps Venus and Adonis, an oil on canvas by Natoire. He repeatedly painted the figure of Venus as an allegory of seduction. 

Credits: Story

Realization: Ville de Nîmes - Musée des Beaux-Arts 
Iconography: © Ville de Nîmes - Musée des Beaux-Arts     

Credits: All media
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