Drawings by Savinien Petit

Tuesday 1 June - Friday 18 June 2021

All works available to be viewed at our gallery.

Riverwide House 6 Mason's Yard
SW1Y 6BU London
United Kingdom

A gifted 19th century painter of Christian art, Savinien Petit was largely forgotten not long after his death, and his work has only recently been rediscovered by scholars and art historians. The son of a village schoolteacher, Petit studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Dijon in the 1830s, and supported himself by producing lithographs of landscapes and portraits, often as book illustrations. Around 1838 he won a scholarship to continue his training under Auguste Hesse, and in 1841 enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he would have been slightly older than many of his fellow students. Petit also met and may have studied with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who is said to have noted of the young artist, ‘Savinien Petit has a feeling for line. He will be a great draughtsman.’

Petit showed for the first time at the Salon of 1840, with a painting of The Infant Jesus Explaining the Scriptures to His Family. Four years later he won a third-class medal at the Salon of 1844 with a painting of The Descent from the Cross. Although he had never competed for the Prix de Rome, Petit was sent to Italy on a government stipend in 1845, tasked with making archaeological drawings of the ancient paintings in the catacombs of Rome. (These drawings served to illustrate a monumental account of the Roman catacombs by Louis Perret, published in six folio volumes in 1851.) During a period of five years in Italy, Petit worked at a furious pace, making extensive studies of the catacombs, churches and numerous other works in Rome, as well as landscape studies. He was particularly inspired by the work of Fra Angelico, and was also much influenced by the German Nazarene painters working in Italy.

On his return to France in 1850 Petit settled in Paris, exhibiting infrequently at the Salons until 1870. Although he occasionally produced portraits, he was almost exclusively active as a painter of religious subjects - characterized by a profoundly spiritual manner and a particular purism - for churches, chapels, convents and oratories in Paris and throughout France. Among his first works were his contributions to the decoration of a chapel in the Parisian church of Notre-Dame-de-Bonne-Nouvelle, completed in 1854. Petit’s next significant commission was for the mural decoration of the small private chapel of the Château de Broglie in Eure, painted between 1854 and 1865. The walls and ceiling of the chapel are decorated with scenes from the Old Testament and the Gospels that reveal the distinct influence on the artist of the medieval mural paintings he had studied in Rome. The murals of the chapel of the Château de Broglie may be regarded as Petit’s masterpiece, and its success led to further commissions.

A large canvas of Christ in the House of Martha and Mary was purchased by the State in 1856 for the church of Richebourg, in the Yvelines département of north-central France, and three years later a companion painting of Christ and the Samaritan Woman was commissioned for the same church, though only completed in 1863. No longer extant is a painting of The Two Marys at the Tomb, executed in 1858 for the tomb of Prince Mikhail Vorontsov in the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odessa in the Ukraine. Between 1860 and 1868 Petit painted two chapels in the cathedral of Saint-André in Bordeaux. Although they were much admired, and added greatly to his reputation as a painter of religious decoration, the mural paintings for Saint-André are in poor condition today.

The final decade of Petit’s career found the artist still much in demand as an ecclesiastical painter. A painting of the Magnificat is today in the church of Notre-Dame des Victoires in Paris, while a painting of Saint Philomena, dated 1871, is in the church of Saint-Martin at Pauillac in the Gironde. In 1873 Petit became a member of the Société de Saint-Jean, founded the previous year with the aim of promoting the practice of Christian art. Among his last major projects were mural decorations for the apse of the church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais in Rouen, painted in 1875 and depicting six standing saints on gold backgrounds, and a painting of The Sacred Heart for the Parisian church of Saint-Joseph, commissioned in 1870 but only completed in 1876. A commission for frescoes to decorate the chapel of the Franciscan convent on the rue de Fourneaux in Paris was barely begun before Petit’s death in February 1878.

Although Petit had been honoured in 1860 by Pope Pius IX as a knight in the pontifical order of Saint Gregory the Great, by the time of his death he was relatively little known. The secretary of the Société de Saint-Jean, Pierre Depelchin, published a thorough account of the artist’s life in the Revue de l’art chrétien in 1878. Depelchin praised Petit’s work but noted that the artist’s almost complete lack of ambition meant that his oeuvre was underappreciated in his own day. Indeed, not long after the artist’s death his name and reputation had fallen into almost total oblivion. The first comprehensive modern study of Petit’s career was only published in 2003, and his work remains rare today. The artist’s paintings are not represented in most museum collections in France - apart from the Musée de Picardie in Amiens, the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Chaumont and the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Langres - and are almost completely unknown outside the country.

The May 1878 sale of the contents of Petit’s studio included 83 paintings and oil sketches, 33 large finished drawings, and ‘a good number of drawings in various pencils, very well finished, and used for large paintings’, together with fourteen cartons of diverse drawings, classified by subject matter. The artist’s work as a draughtsman remained almost completely unknown, however, until a large cache of his drawings was discovered in an antique shop in Lille in 1977. The two largest extant groups of drawings by Petit are in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which purchased over three hundred drawings - mainly copy drawings made in Rome - from the artist’s estate in 1878, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nancy, which owns a more complete and varied group of around two hundred and sixty sheets, many of which were included in an exhibition of the artist’s drawings at the museum in 2004. A handful of other drawings by Petit are today in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid.

Presented here are a group of seven studies of hands by Savinien Petit from a private collection, as well as a beautiful drawing after a famous marble sculpture of the 16th century, produced during the artist’s seminal period of study in Rome in the second half of the 1840s.