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Scene of an Exodus

Ary Scheffer

(1795 - 1858) | 975.4.207

Date : Circa 1823 | Medium : Oil on canvas

Ary Scheffer is known today principally for the cold, translucently clear compositions that he painted after 1830. During the 1820s, however, he executed a number of small genre scenes of lachrymose sentimentality that few would hesitate to call commercial works but which brought him great celebrity (The Return of the Invalid and The Flood are examples).

The Troubadour painting popular during the Restoration period celebrated the virtues of heros of the Ancien Régime, while at the same time censuring the devastation caused by the foolhardiness of a warmongering Emperor. With peace, French society saw the bourgeois classes become more and more influential in the commissioning of paintings that reflected a new appetite for scenes depicting the life of ordinary people.

It is possible that the Rouen painting is the 1823 ‘Scene of Invasion’ listed by Cornelia Scheffer, the artist’s daughter, who catalogued her father’s works in 1859. The style of the painting is the same as others that date from the 1820s and its subject matter closely corresponds to a picture from 1827 entitled The Burning of a Village in Alsace in 1814 (Musée de la Vie Romantique, Paris).

At the beginning of 1814, many Alsatians fled the Napoleonic armies sweeping through their lands. Ary Scheffer portrays the reality of the deep suffering endured by the Alsatian people with great accuracy. He shows the range of their expressions as they react to the burning of their village (depicted on the lower right hand side of the picture), moving from resignation to anger, from sadness to imploring supplication. The painter’s skill is demonstrated in the way the attitude of each figure conveys tension, and we can sense that the fire is still a threat through the heightening touches of orange and yellow that bring the flames ever closer.