Not many people today are familiar with Jean-Bernard Restout (1732-1796), but he belongs to that era of great painters who also happened to be adventurers in their own right.
Restout was born in Paris, the son of Jean Restout (1692-1768), one of the major religious painters of the first half of the century. Young Jean-Bernard learned the science and craft of painting from his father and his brother-in-law, Noel Halle (1711-1781), a history painter.
In 1755 he won second prize at the Prix de Rome competition, and won first prize three years later with his Abraham Leading Isaac to the Sacrifice, the money from which enabled him to go to Rome to study. Jean-Bernard was approved by the Académie Royale in 1765, received in 1769 and became a professor in 1771. Between 1767 and 1791 he frequently exhibited at the Paris Salon.
Jean-Bernard was an extraordinarily gifted painter and, with his abilities and family connections, seemed to be secure in a promising career. However, young Jean-Bernard was appalled at what he considered to be the Académie’s draconian artistic strictures, and rebelled.
Jean-Bernard resigned from the Académie during the French Revolution in 1789 because of admission regulations that favored privileged candidates. In 1793 he became president of the Commune des Arts formed by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), which was dedicated to loosening the Académie’s stranglehold on teaching, exhibitions and commissions.
During the political turmoil of the Revolution, Jean-Bernard was thrown into prison, but was released at Robespierre’s downfall on July 27, 1794. With the advent of Modernism, Jean-Bernard has fallen into obscurity, but his talent is a delight to true connoisseurs.
The masterpiece above is Jean-Bernard’s vision of Morpheus, which can be found today at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It is a mid-sized canvas, about 38x51, and depicts the god of dreams asleep himself. Morpheus had the ability to take any human form and appear in dreams, but his true visage was that of a winged daemon. Daemons are benevolent spirits, often spirit guides or gods themselves.
Look at Jean-Bernard’s command of anatomy; the reclining Morpheus pivots at the waist, the breadth of his chest wide and flat, while his legs bunch below his twisting pelvis. The laurel wreath on his head denotes that Morpheus is indeed a king of some variety, and the wings seem more angelic than pagan. The crossed feet and outstretched arms are unmistakable cognates for images of the crucified Jesus – is Jean-Bernard connecting the blessing of sleep with the King of Peace?
This sleep of Morpheus is indeed the sleep of oblivion – note how heavily the body rests, the complete unconsciousness in the face, the abandon of his unsteady perch on the bed. It is also a sleep healthy and restorative – see how lovingly Jean-Bernard tints the body with delicate pinks, whites and red flesh tones. Did Jean-Bernard muse upon his own dreams while painting the King of Sleep? We’ll never know, but the figure’s complete surrender to sleep, along with its promise of other invisible worlds, make this a remarkable picture.