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Gift of Rococo painting to LACMA goes back to the future [Updated]

September 26, 2010 |  1:00 pm
Jean Restout

Expectations were that a gift of an early 18th century French painting would be announced at the gala to celebrate the opening of the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Saturday night. The 1717 mythological picture by Jean Restout (1692-1768) shows Venus, flamboyant goddess of love, pretty in pink in the center of the action. Drapery flying and attendants madly gesticulating, she orders her bemused husband, Vulcan, the muscled blacksmith god of fire, to make a set of armor and weapons for her warrior son, Aeneas. He's the hero of Virgil's "Aeneid," and thus a suitable classical subject for a French history painting.

Announcement or not, however, the picture seems destined for LACMA's walls. In the self-published catalog accompanying the show of the Resnicks' art collection that is installed in the new pavilion bearing their name, the painting's provenance, or history of ownership, concludes with this: "Given to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2011."

The advance notice might be unusual, but the intention is clear. [Updated at 5:38: A LACMA spokesman confirms that no announcement about the gift was made Saturday night.]

Restout is not a well-known artist today. During his lifetime, he was something of a company man, holding various posts in the Royal Academy, designing tapestry commissions for the king and painting altarpieces for numerous churches. (His huge painting "Pentecost," 25 feet wide and made for the refectory of the abbey of Saint-Denis, now hangs in the Louvre, together with a monumental tapestry design.) Orphaned young, Restout was taken from his native Rouen to Paris, where he apprenticed with his famous uncle, Jean Jouvenet, a director of the academy. LACMA owns Jouvenet's finished biblical oil sketch, "The Raising of Lazarus" (circa 1711), currently installed on the third floor of the Ahmanson Building.

The Resnicks bought "Venus Ordering Arms From Vulcan for Aeneas" in 1999, paying $189,500 at a Christie's auction (the price includes buyer's premium). According to the sales catalog, the painting was Restout's ticket to Royal Academy membership, made as an homage to his recently deceased uncle:
As reserved as he was meek, [Restout] practiced in secret for the grand prize; when he felt skilled enough to enter the lists, he painted "Venus Ordering Arms From Vulcan for Aeneas," and this painting gained him an associate membership in the Academie. The members saw in the painting the reincarnation of Jouvenet: It had the same style of drawing, the same large, draped forms, the same arrangement of groups, and the same harmony between perspective and all the magic of chiaroscuro.

LACMA curator of European paintings Patrice Marandel has identified a second Restout in the National Gallery of Canada, showing a slightly later scene from the popular story, which also might have been the painting Christie's catalog describes. "Venus Presenting Arms to Aeneas" (1717), at 53 inches by 41 inches about the same size as the Resnicks' canvas (although vertical rather than horizontal), is described on the Canadian museum's website as the painting that won Restout his academy slot.

-- Christopher Knight

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Photo: Jean Restout's "Venus Ordering Arms From Vulcan for Aeneas," 1717. Credit: LACMA

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