The selection a new Pope is an occasion of great pomp and ceremony – which can also be seen with an awe-stricken eye not unmixed with amusement. The great solemnity of the time seems to tweak the pawkish humor of many of us, as commentators, historians and artists seek to see the complete, fallible human being behind the exalted figurehead.
One of the most amusing critics of the church was master painter Jean Georges Vibert (1840-1902), who used his genius to eviscerate church hypocrisy with wit and panache. His meditations on churchmen demonstrate the growing democratization of Europe, and illustrate the start of a Continental movement away from superstition and servitude.
Like many of the artists we’ve covered in The Jade Sphinx, the young Vibert was a mediocre student. He spent most of his school time drawing rather than studying; he did know that his ultimate goal was to be an artist, and he began training with his grandfather Jean-Pierre-Marie Jazet, a celebrated engraver. Later on he would study with Felix Joseph Barrias, and would enter the Ecole des Beaux-Arts when he was 16. He would study there for six years, working mostly with artist Franciois-Edouard Picot.
In the 1860s, Vibert traveled to Spain with his friend Eduardo Zamacois, a young Spanish artist. Vibert collected Spanish clothing and objects, which he would later use to create scenery for many of his ecclesiastical paintings. The two men would work together in 1866 on their Salon entry, Entrance of the Torenros, an unusual move, as most artists did not work collaboratively at that time.
Vibert made his solo debut three years earlier with two works, The Siesta and Repentance. In 1864, he was awarded a medal for his Narcissus Transformed into a Flower. It was also around this time that Vibert started painting the clergy in a manner both humorous and contemptuous.
Both the humor and contempt are on display with this wonderful picture, The Preening Peacock. First, let’s look at all the aspects of the picture that immediately stamp it as a work of great technical skill. Vibert highlights the figure of the priest by placing him against a neutral background, here muted trees and a nondescript classical stairway and railing. The neutrality of the background brings to life the vivid hues of the reds and blues of priest and peacock, respectively. It may also be significant that the trees are wintery and dead and the staircase slightly worn – a symbol, perhaps, of the internal decay of the priestly figure.
The priest is rendered in splendid detail, with each fold and drape of his robes depicted with precise technique. His medals and ornamentations are richly painted, as are the gold embroidery of his hat band and the shine on his shoes. Look, too, at the gold tassels dangling from his girdle and the red tassels at the knob of his cane. Red socks are visible above his highly-polished patent leather pumps, and white ruffles are visible at his cuffs.
But best of all, look at how the priest stands: back up, chin up, chest puffed out. He is not posing, he is preening. Vibert then underscores this with the look of smug self-satisfaction on the priest’s face, as well as a certain … vacuity. His religious fever seems to go no further than fashion.
To make the joke complete, Vibert places a strutting peacock behind the priest. But who is following who…? And to illustrate that the priest is not a unique case of silken soft-headedness, there is another peacock in the background. This priest is one of a flock.
More Vibert tomorrow!