Jouvenet , JEAN, surnamed THE GREAT, French painter, b. at Rouen in 1644; d. at Paris, April 5, 1717. In his family, of Italian extraction, the painting instinct was hereditary. Noel Jouvenet, his grand-father, who had settled in Normandy, is believed to have been the teacher of Poussin, while to Laurent Jouvenet, his father, Jean owed his early instruction in art, before he was sent by him to Paris in 1660. At that time the goldsmiths’ guild in the city planted a tree each year on May 1 in the enclosure of Notre-Dame, and presented a painting for the altar of Our Lady. The greatest artists of the age painted some of these works, which were known as mats. Jouvenet executed the painting for the year 1673, the subject being the “Cure of the Paralytic”. His performance attracted the attention of Lebrun, who enrolled the author in the group of artists then engaged in decorating the palace of Versailles, under the direction of the “premier peintre”. Jouvenet was elected to the Academy in 1675, and was appointed professor in 1681. However it was not till some time later, after the death of Lebrun (1692), that he came into prominence. In truth, French painting hitherto almost completely under the influence of the Italian schools, and following under Lebrun the tradition of Rome and Bologna, was just commencing to free itself. A new tradition, traceable to Rubens, who had in 1628 painted in the Palais du Luxembourg (the famous Galerie de Médicis, now in the Louvre), was daily gaining strength. Artists were divided into “Rubenists” and “Poussinists”, the partisans of form and the champions of color. This artistic strife continued during the whole of the latter part of the reign of Louis XIV. Jouvenet played a decisive part in the struggle. Never having been in Italy, he could form an impartial judgment of the merits and claims of the Roman school. With La Fosse and Antoine Coypel, he was one of those who contributed most to the work of transformation, which resulted in the rise of the eighteenth-century school of artists.
Jouvenet’s paintings for the Salons of 1699 and 1704 were the manifesto of the new school. The most important of them are preserved in the Louvre. The first is the famous “Descent from the Cross” (1697), which hangs in the Salon Carré—a free translation of Rubens’ masterpiece in the cathedral of Antwerp. Eloquent and impressive, distinguished by a sentiment of massiveness and color, and by its tonality at once low and elaborate, it was destined to exert a profound influence on the school. With the painting by Largillière in St-Etienne du Mont (1696), it occupies a most important place in the history of French painting, in which it is one of the principal dates. In the Salon of 1704 Jouvenet presented the four works, each twenty feet long, intended for the church of St-Martin des Champs (but now in the Louvre): “The Repast at the House of Simon”, “The Expulsion of the Sellers from the Temple”, and especially the “Raising of Lazarus” and the “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”. Attention has often been called to the fact that the artist went to Dieppe expressly to prepare himself to execute this last named picture. We might point out also that it is strongly reminiscent of the Rubens preserved in Mechlin. Louis XIV was so delighted with these works that he had them reproduced in tapestry by the Gobelins, and it was this tapestry that impressed Tsar Peter the Great so much in 1717, that he wished to take it away with him, believing it to be the greatest of masterpieces. Meanwhile Jouvenet, who was now the recognized head of the new school, was selected to work at the two decorative groups which express most accurately the characteristics of the new tradition: the dome of the Hôtel des Invalides (1700-6) and the chapel of Versailles (1709). For the former he painted twelve colossal figures of the Apostles, and for the latter, over the royal tribune, a “Descent of the Holy Ghost”.
Jouvenet was director of the Academy from 1705 till 1708. In 1713 he was stricken with apoplexy and his right hand became paralysed. Far from being discouraged by this, he actually acquired, though now seventy years of age, a, facility for painting with his left hand, and thus executed his last two works, the ceiling in the Palais de Justice at Rouen (it has now perished; there remains only a sketch of it preserved in the Louvre) and the “Magnificat” in the choir of Notre-Dame. Jouvenet is far from being a great master, but he is a striking personality in the realms of art. His works, theatrical and often declamatory, but honest and powerful, do not excite emotion, though one can still easily understand their great historic importance. They taught painting to the French school which had forgotten it. The whole body of great decorators in the eighteenth century—men like Coypel, de Troy, Restout, Van Loo, and Doyen—follow in his footsteps, and Ingres was not mistaken in grouping them under the title of the “School of Jouvenet”. His chief paintings outside the Louvre are in the galleries of Amiens, Rouen, Nancy, Grenoble, Nantes, Rennes, and Toulouse. We have still some admirable portraits by him, as that of Fagon, physician to Louis XIV (in the Louvre) and that of Bourdaloue—now only known by the engraving, which has given rise to so much discussion as to whether the great orator preached with his eyes closed.