Thomas Couture
(Senlis 1815-1879 Villiers-le-Bel)

The Hand of Maître de Bénazé Study for The Lawyer pleading his case

c. 1875,
oil on canvas,
33 x 41 cm,
monogrammed (lower left):
“T. C.”.

George Peter Alexander Healy Collection (1813-1894), Chicago and Paris.
Galerie Heim-Gairac, 1988.
Bruno Foucart Collection (1838-2018).
Paris, art market.

Catalogue des œuvres de Th. Couture précédé d’un essai sur l’artiste par Roger Ballu (exh. cat., Paris, Palais de l’Industrie, September 1880), Paris, A. Quantin & Cie, 1880, no. 201 (as “Main mi-ouverte”; A study for the painting “L’Avocat” belonging to Mr Healy).


Notice de l'oeuvre :

Thomas Couture, from Senlis, was the pupil of Baron Gros from 1830 to 1835. He then joined the studio of Paul Delaroche. He arrived second at the Prix de Rome in 1837 and then abandoned the tradition of academic art. The Romans in their Decadence, which was exhibited at the Salon in 1847, earned him a first class medal. The painting, which was bought by the State, enabled him to gain notoriety. Critics saw in the painting a synthesis between the Classical and Romantic styles, and envisaged it as a perfect example of “good balance”. Couture opened a studio and received important official commissions, amongst which The Enrolment of the Volunteers in 1848 and The Baptism of the Imperial Prince in 1856, which was partly left unfinished. During the 1850s Couture benefitted from the support of the governing power. The end of that decade represented a major turning point in his career. A press campaign against him in 1857 questioned his integrity and forced him to move back to his hometown in the 1860s. There, he worked in a studio that was assigned to him by the town of Senlis: the chapel of the previous episcopal palace, which became a museum in 1981.
Even before his disappointing experience in Paris and his first relocation to Senlis, Couture, disillusioned, developed progressively misanthropic and antisocial tendencies. Similarly to Daumier, he started to deride jurists, politicians, financiers, doctors, and courtiers. He often employed the grotesque features of La Commedia dell’arte to paint his acerbic visions of the society of the Second Empire. In La Commandite (c. 1860), Couture portrayed a manager dressed as Harlequin as he shared his own opinions on the costs of Pierrot’s gluttony with three well-established characters (an aristocrat, a soldier and a magistrate). In the same spirit, Pierrot en correctionnelle (ill. 1), whose creation started in 1859 and finished in 1863, displays a poor unhappy man who is being judged for having stolen food from the kitchen of a restaurant. The man faces, distraught, the justice stipulated by rich people who attack him. The passionate plea of the Harlequin lawyer is pointless since the two judges are overwhelmed by the “somnolence of the righteous men”, in Couture’s own words.
A picture of Senlis’ tribunal (ill. 2) which frames the scene appears amongst the many preparatory drawings created by Couture in the 1860s for Pierrot en correctionelle: within the assembly of men in the courtroom the silhouette of a lawyer standing in the second row, on the right hand side of the composition, definitely stands out. His attitude is similar to that of Maître de Bénazé portrayed in the painting The Lawyer pleading his case, now lost, which was painted by the artist a few years before his death, in 1875. This composition is known thanks to a pen drawing of the same subject which is currently in the Museum of Senlis (ill. 3). The jurist, who is believed to be Théodore-Auguste de Bénazé (1829-1912), a solicitor working in Senlis, is portrayed as he is giving his speech: he leans against the bar with his left hand resting on a large book while his right hand performs a fine oratory gesture. Even though it was painted later on and it was not used in the final composition of Pierrot en correctionnelle, this representation of the lawyer still belongs to the series of portraits which were directly inspired by this work.
Our sketch, which displays a detail of the right hand of Maître de Bénazé, belongs to the corpus of research that Couture made for The Lawyer pleading his case. The artist also produced two more sketches for this painting: a head (ill. 4) and a hand browsing through a book (ill. 5), currently in the Joey and Toby Tenenbaum Collection of the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Canada.???
The composition and the three studies have been exhibited at the retrospective on Couture at the Palais de l’Industrie. In 1880 The Lawyer pleading his case belonged to the founder Ferdinand Barbedienne (1810-1892), who was both a close friend and a collector of the painter’s works. The study for the head was still in the hands of Mrs Couture, whereas the two studies of hands were in the possession of the famous American portraitist Georges Pierre Healy (1813-1894), Couture’s loyal friend.
The three studies for The Lawyer pleading his case perfectly show Couture’s working method: before arranging the composition of a painting, the artist would have produced a number of sketches on the spot which would have captured a great variety of poses and attitudes.
These preparatory studies confirm the painter’s fine and rigorous observation skills and clearly display his interest in the spontaneity of a first ‘draft’: Couture associated vigorous gestures of the right hand with the self-confident and determined attitude of the lawyer who pleads with eloquence while his left hand browses nervously though a juridic book. In his Méthode, which he wrote for his pupils, he extolled the potential of spontaneous sketching: “If you work with models… surprise them; they should ignore that you are looking at them. Some lines drawn quickly, your observations and some notes taken with the impulse of your impressions will guide you much better than those awful models who mislead you…”.
This tendency, which often led him to abandon a series of sketches only to then start producing new ones, explains the title that was given to his posthumous exhibition: “The Apotheosis of the Incomplete”. The desire to preserve at all costs his first impression is the reason behind the fragmented and often incomplete finish of Couture’s œuvre.
Couture was interested, similarly to the great masters of the Renaissance, to the pictorial possibilities offered by the depiction of the human hand. His œuvre includes multiple examples of his approach to and treatment of this theme. The hand with a feather and inkpot — a preparatory sketch for the Enrolment of the Volunteers (1848) —  and the arm holding a scroll — another preparatory drawing for The Nobility (1868- 1877) — should definitely be included in the list of the most beautiful examples of this genre, alongside the two studies of hands for The Lawyer pleading his case (ill. 6 & 7).
The motif of the hand reproducing the shape of pliers finds its origin in Antiquity and in Christian iconography: the orators of the Agora and of the Senate of ancient Greece expressed their notions of perfection and excellence while joining their index finger and thumb. The first representations of Christ in Byzantine icons show him with his right hand raised and his fingers forming the letters IC XC, the abbreviation of Jesus Christ in Greek. The modern equivalent of the blessing Christ is mirrored in the gesture of the magistrate, who tries to establish his authority in the worldly domain. This detail is capable of expressing by itself the force of persuasion of the orator, who pairs his argument with a precise gesture that aims at expressing his good faith.
Our sketch constitutes an extraordinary tour de force for its complexity. The work, rendered with a rich combination of brown and ochre hues, is immersed in an almost Rembrandt-like atmosphere. The painter, by focusing on the essential, sketched only summarily the sleeve. As a result he managed to lead the attention of the viewer towards the hand, which is rendered with vigour and realism. The powerful chiaroscuro, the narrow composition and the sombre, frotté background saturate the image with dramatic tension and theatricality.
Similarly to other advanced sketches, The Hand of Maître de Bénazé could possibly be considered one of the most successful works in the creative œuvre of the painter. It acquires the value of an autonomous work, despite its primary function. The presence of the monogram “T. C.” in the bottom left corner confirms that our painting surpassed, according to the painter’s viewpoint, its status as mere preparatory work. Couture, who here shows a sincere passion for his profession as painter, manages to render the details of this sketch with an intensity which is often absent in his more finished works.


Amélie du Closel

This sketch by Thomas Couture, which originally belonged to the artist George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1893), changed hands several times since it was painted. Couture was a very popular and itinerant artist. In 1834 he moved to Paris to train in the studio of Baron Gros. It is probably in Gros’ atelier that Healy and Thomas Couture met and became friends. Working as portraitist for the American and European elites, Healy notably painted Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Pope Pius IX. The presence of this sketch in his collection testifies to the longevity of the relationship between France and the United States, which was strengthened further by the friendship between the two artists. Furthermore, the fact that George Peter Alexander Healy took Couture’s painting depicting The Prodigal Son with him to Chicago confirms the proximity of the two.
After having been in Heim-Gairac Gallery for a few years in the late 1980s, the sketch ended up in the collection of the art historian Bruno Foucart (1938-2018). A 19th century pioneer in the field of architectural conservation and restoration, Foucart was also a professor at the University Paris IV, a member of multiple ministerial cabinets and the general secretary of the Institut Napoléon. An enthusiast of 19th century religious painting, Foucart contributed substantially to its rehabilitation thanks to his doctoral thesis. The latter was published by Arthena editions in 1987 and it remains to this day a primary point of reference in the field. In this volume Foucart mentioned Couture while discussing his work for the Chapel of the Virgin in the Church of Saint-Eustache. He qualified the artist as “the painter of the traditional past as well as of the future whose art was not understood by clerical critics”. The art historian wrote often about the artist, and ultimately described him as “the genius master of Manet [...] and the detested god of eclecticism”. Bruno Foucart also underlined how “the true genius of Couture expressed itself especially well in his sketches”. Foucart lamented the lack of recognition of Couture’s talents in France — as he did for many other 19th century artists — and in 1972 he stated that “the only good exhibitions of Couture’s work that have been organised over the last few years have taken place in the United States”. The presence of this sketch in this collection consequently confirms the art historian’s attachment to the French painter. Foucart could express at best this notion of love for art in his own practice of art history. As Alain Mérot argued, Bruno Foucart adopted a very passionate approach which was capable of making art history fascinating for others: “As in the act of pruning, that undressing (by means of art history) makes the artwork really itself, it shows its core, naked, and it allows for love at first sight to occur, for a bond to be created which ensures that the more we understand it and look at it, the more we love it.”


Maxime Georges Métraux

Hubert Duchemin
8, rue de Louvois - 75002 - PARIS
Tel: +33 (0)1 42 60 83 01
copyright Hubert Duchemin 2013