Les Capétiens partout! (Capetians Everywhere! — 1954)
Conserved today within the collections of the Pompidou Center – National Museum of Modern Art in Paris, Les Capétiens partout! (Capetians Everywhere!) is often considered one of the masterpieces of artist Georges Mathieu, who in the 1950s made of the feudal and royal Middle Ages one of his favorite subjects when painting and when naming his creations. On this subject, he wrote that “the appetite for historical painting or more simply for the association of titles taken from the History of France for [his] paintings came to [him] around 1950.”
Created on October 10, 1954, this 3 x 6 meter work is his second monumental canvas, after La bataille de Bouvines (The Battle of Bouvines), painted in the month of April in the same year. Les Capétiens partout! was shown to the public for the first time along with fourteen other paintings at a Georges Mathieu exhibition held at the Galerie Rive Droite from November 5 to November 30, 1954.
The Election of Hugues Capet
In a document written on April 27, 1987, and published on the following September 11th in the journal Dynastie to mark the Capetian millenium, the painter describes the circumstances that led to the creation of this painting. He shares that discovering the residency of Jean Larcade, owner of the Galerie Rive Droite, gave him the inspiration to create a work whose theme was the coronation of Hugues Capet.
It was probably the discovery of the château of Jean Larcade in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, whose grounds represented an exceptional historical concentration, that convinced me to choose the most important event in the history of France […] as the theme-pretext for the most important canvas in the exhibition I was preparing.
Mathieu provided a long and precise description of this estate and its grounds. He also explained that “for [him], Hugues Capet incarnated one of the most beautiful myths of our History, along with Charlemagne and the Crusades.”
Nevertheless, although the title was inspired by the environment in which the work was created, the use of an historically-themed title was for him a more gracious means of reference than a simple number. He also could not affirm or deny that there was an influence of the title on the work.
Several individuals attended the creation of Les Capétiens partout!, including Gabrielle Smith and Dmitri Kessel, reporters from the American magazine Life which wanted to produce a report on Mathieu’s work. One may assume that this was one of the reasons a film was shot during the creation of the painting, in witness of the painter’s actions upon the canvas before him, laid out atop the Merovingian stone floor of the grounds. The artist pushed forward the symbolic value of the creative act to include temporal notions, because he painted the work in the space of an hour and twenty minutes. This time frame matches the duration of the actual coronation ceremony of Hugues Capet.
The abstract sign
The quick inscription of abstract signs on the canvas is one of the trademarks of Georges Mathieu, somewhat like a second signature. In fact, a connection to the calligraphy of the Far East (with which he is associated between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s) is not out of the question. Indeed, the American abstract painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976) noted this link to the esthetics of the Far East in the exhibition catalogue for the work, first shown at the Galerie Rive Droite in 1954.
That the method used recalls to my mind aesthetics of the Far East is too evident as no traces of a craft-approach are to be seen and the spectator is taken into an immediacy which at first one might find very disconcerting or attempt to dismiss.
Les Capétiens partout! reflects precise and controlled spontaneity of the artist’s movement. This approach reveals the subject that inhabits the piece. In 1987, the artist described his succession of movements on the canvas:
The first sign is essential immediately: the globe topped with a hand-drawn cross. The first stroke signifies a crown and its rays are bigger and bigger in auras that extend in distance to the left. There is a black spot, the letter l, and then a vertical bar asserts itself. Then chrome yellows and Chinese reds appear. Are they the hues of gold and glory or are they passion and blood? Then, another golden crown, and the beginning of a long stretch of work coming right from the tube, alternated by strokes of the brush. Some believe they see the word “Capel” still visible today. After an hour and twenty minutes, the work was finished.
The Capetians Rive Droite
Unveiling Les Capétiens partout! to the public in the exhibition at the Jean Larcade Gallery was certainly not easy, given the difficulty of installing a piece of such monumental dimensions. Mathieu stated that the police was enlisted to facilitate its arrival at the gallery at 82 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. As he stated, climbing to the third floor where the canvas occupied the entire wall of the second room, was “slow and dramatic”. Several photographs by the filmmaker and photographer Robert Descharnes, along with a number of articles in the press, bore witness to the event.
Les Capétiens partout! was exhibited for about three weeks along with fourteen other pieces the artist painted between 1946 and 1954. They were displayed in three rooms. The first contained Le Concile de Basles / Acognition (Council of Basel / Acognition, 1947), Adalbéron exhortant les Grands à Senlis / Décadence rouge (Adalbéron exhorting the Elders in Senlis / Red Decadence, 1948), La destinée prodigieuse de Gerbert d’Aurillac (The Prodigious Destiny of Gerbert d’Aurillac, 1950), Louis VI détruisant la commune de Laon / Désintégration (Louis the 6th destroys the Commune of Laon / Disintegration, 1946), Les cinq jours de Jean 1er le Posthume (The Five Days of John I the Posthumous, 1946), Un silence de Guibert de Nogent (The Silence of Guibert de Nogent, 1953), Grégoire IX excommuniant les bourgeois de Rheims (Gregory the 9th excommunicating the bourgeois of Reims, 1953), Vivent les Cornificiens! (Long Live the Cornificians!, 1951) and La question pure (The Pure Question, 1954).
The second room displayed Les Capétiens partout! where it occupied the whole wall and was placed on stone, bearing a coat of arms. Across from the work hung three other canvasses: Noyon, ce Mercredi 1er juin (“Noyon, Wednesday, June the 1st”, 1952), “Qui regest deponerem, regesque ordinarem” (1953), and Hommage à Adam du Petit Pont (Homage to Adam of the Little Bridge, 1954). The third room displayed Mont-Joie Saint-Denis! (1954), a piece that is today part of the MoMA collection in New York. According to the exhibition catalogue, another work was also there: “Moult de parte” (1949) whose silhouette then constituted the “coat of arms” of the painter.