21 1/4 in. x 25 11/16 in. (53.98 cm x 65.25 cm)
Bequest of Florence Andrews Todd in Memory of her Mother, Sally W. Andrews,
PC T 7 (169)
Description The Letter
depicts two members of the Catholic clergy in an ornately furnished interior. One man, a high official called a cardinal, sits with hands clasped at his chest, smiling; the other, younger man stands, reading aloud a letter. The rich red of their shoulder capes, or mozzettas, and long robes is reflected in numerous details in the composition. The artist’s use of oil paint on a panel support lends a high-gloss finish to the work.
Context and Analysis
The versatile French painter Emile Meyer was a pupil of several leading academic history painters, and of the allegorical painter Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898). Meyer exhibited frequently at the Paris Salon. His subjects included anecdotal genre paintings, landscapes, equestrian pictures, and portraits. Beginning in 1890, he also painted ecclesiastical subjects. He treated the theme of letter writing in at least one other of his historical genre paintings. 1
The most direct influence on the specific details and overall temperament of Meyer’s The Letter
appears to have been the popular “cardinal” paintings of Jean-Georges Vibert (1840–1892).2 The photographic precision, brilliant color, and element of humor featured in The Letter were the distinguishing characteristics of a genre of painting made famous by Vibert and an entire school of contemporary French painters. These artists were inspired by Dutch painters of the 1600s and, like them, were known as the “little masters.” Among their favorite subjects was the everyday life of the Catholic clergy, wittily portrayed with all their foibles and follies.
Anticlericalism was widespread in France during the politically turbulent decades of the mid-1800s. Artists such as Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) expressed strong hostility to, and sharp criticism of, the Roman Catholic Church. Anticlerical attitudes mellowed as the century progressed, eventually turning into the mild—and therefore, for many European and American collectors, more palatable—satire of Vibert and his followers. Florence Andrews Todd, who bequeathed this work to the Currier Gallery in 1937, owned several other French works of this kind.
In Meyer’s painting, the mysterious contents of a letter set an entertaining narrative into motion. The scene is presumably set in the home of the elder, seated cardinal, who wears a red cap called a biretta
and the type of shoes prescribed for home use. Yet the lavishly decorated room is curiously devoid of identifiable Christian imagery. For example, the Rococo tapestries depict secular scenes of pseudo-Roman soldiers, and semi-nude figures adorn the fireplace. A bearskin rug provides an absurd resting place for the man’s feet; the grimacing head of the hapless beast, crushed beneath the legs of the chair supporting his portly frame, provides a stark contrast to his cheerful countenance. Though the source of the cardinal’s amusement is clearly the missive that his younger companion reads aloud, the viewer must piece together its contents, through the wealth of compositional clues the artist has provided.
The Currier collection includes several paintings of ecclesiastical subjects by artists of the 1800s. Besides The Letter, the Todd Bequest to the Currier includes three images of the clergy (Currier, PC T 12 (169)
, PC T 20 (169)
, and PC T 22 (169)
). In addition, the Currier collection includes similar pictures by Achille Buzzi and Jean Paul Sinibaldi (Currier, 2009.29 and 2009.30), as well as an ecclesiastical image by Vibert (Currier, 1992.33
). Finally, the etching of Winter
by Dutch artist Jan Van de Velde II offers an instructive example of the Dutch tavern scenes of the 1600s from which these lighthearted subjects derive (Currier, 2010.26.35.3
Written by Emily M. Weeks, Ph.D.
1 Rosenthal, p. 5 and n. 8. The title of this work, now in a private collection, is Composing a Letter.
2 See, in particular, Vibert’s The Schism of
1874 (Wadsworth Atheneum); Rosenthal, 11.
Brooke, David S. “Three Early Gifts to the Gallery.” Currier Gallery of Art Bulletin
Rau, Bill. “When Comedy Went to Church: Nineteenth-century Cardinal Paintings.” Fine Art Connoisseur
Rosenthal, Donald A. “Emile Meyer’s The Letter.” Unpublished manuscript, 1993.
Zafran, Eric M. Cavaliers and Cardinals: Nineteenth-century French Anecdotal Painting
. Exh. cat. Cincinnati: Taft Museum, 1992.
1972 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "Buried Treasure." Jan. 15 - Feb. 20.
1977 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "Out for an Airing." June 18 - Sept. 11.
1986 Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME, "Masterpieces from the Currier Gallery of Art." Sept. 11 - Nov. 2.
1992-1993 "Cavaliers and Cardinals: Nineteenth Century French Anecdotal Painting." Organized by the Taft Museum. Traveled to: Taft Museum, Cincinnati, OH, June 25 - Aug. 16, 1992; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Sept. 12 - Nov. 8, 1992; Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, NY, Nov. 21, 1992 - Jan. 7, 1993.
2017 Currier Museum of Art. "Seeing Red in the Collection" June 23, 2017 - Jan. 2018
Bequest to Currier Museum of Art, 1937