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From one sun to another. Jean-Denis Attiret Jesuit missionary painter to the Emperor of China


Jean-Denis Attiret is today a little known personality. However, this painter from Dolois, who later became a Jesuit, found himself official painter at the court of the Emperor of China Qianlong for 31 years. If the works that have come down to us are rare, he left an important epistolary documentation which allows to retrace in detail his Chinese course. Violet Fris-Larrouy, a student at the École du Louvre, at the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations and at the École Pratique des Hautes Études de Paris, offers us a biography of the very successful artist in his book " From one sun to another. Jean-Denis Attiret Jesuit missionary painter to the Emperor of China »Published by Éditions de la Bisquine.

From Dôle to China

Jean-Denis Attiret born in 1702 comes from a family of master-carpenters and painters from Dolois. It evolves in one of the “bastions of the Counter-Reformation” which knows in modern times an important monastic development. Very early on interested in painting, he made a trip to Italy thanks to the patronage of Claude Joseph Froissard, Marquis de Broissia. He leads a life consistent with that of the young painters of his time until certain torments appear. His life does not seem to make sense to him and he seeks to fill a void by joining his benefactor, who, linked to the Jesuits, offers him to join the novitiate in Avignon. The Avignon fathers accepted because of the generosity of the Marquis but remained skeptical about the candidacy because the novice seemed too old to them. In 1735, he seemed to give up the paintbrushes for good and devote his life to God and the company of Jesus. He then faces a rather rigid and hard life but he accepts it, convinced that he made the right choice. A certain number of chances and opportunities lead him to take up the brushes again. In 1738, following a Chinese imperial request, he was sent to China to serve the emperor and the propagation of the faith. The departure and the journey are narrated by the author and put into perspective.

The Jesuit Order and China

The author develops at length the religious motivations of the painter and the order. It devotes many developments to the history of the order in Asia, its policy but also its links with the European powers and the papacy. We discover that the company enjoyed economic advantages and that a great "national" rivalry between Portuguese and French Jesuits in China conditioned the arrival of the artist Dolois. Violette Fris-Larrouy explains in a clear and synthetic way the importance of the image in the propagation of the faith for the company of Jesus. The history of the quarrel of the rites is also approached. This opposed two visions of mission and evangelization: the Jesuits wanted religious education to be adapted to local cultures "accommodation" but some reproached them for favoring and returning to certain forms of paganism. This “accommodation” had nevertheless made it possible to garner a certain number of successes. The papacy definitively rejects these practices and the Chinese emperor adopts a less benevolent or even hostile posture as the condemnations accumulate. The author clearly shows the role of the Jesuits as “culture transmitters” who transmitted Chinese knowledge through their letters. These were intended as much for a better European knowledge as for their own propaganda. This explains the conservation of these letters to the present day. It is in this troubled context that Jean-Denis Attiret evolves.

A painter of the Emperor

Arrived in China, the artist must adapt to his new status and his new sponsor. "It is for him the beginning of his sorrows and of his crosses". It must conform to a stereotypical style and painting as desired by the Emperor far from the hybrid style emerging out of court of which Castiglione is a prominent representative. Jean-Denis Attiret had to reproduce flowers, birds, fish and other elements on various media when he presented himself as a history painter and portrait painter. He must assimilate pictorial codes but also those of the Chinese imperial court which will allow him to survive in a world where Christians are less and less well accepted. He must also forget the oil and the chiaroscuro that the emperor does not appreciate. Despite this with Castiglione, he trains many Chinese artists and gradually assimilates local tastes: "My eyes and my taste since I came to China have become a little Chinese". In 1754, he accompanied the emperor to Jehol and was to represent a great ceremony as well as the great lords Dörbets (Western Mongols). Satisfied, the emperor then asks him to paint his portrait. The emperor is inspired by Western kings in spreading his image for his own glory. The Qing in particular introduce more variety in the poses and wish their representations to be more majestic. Jean-Denis Attiret also painted military paintings inspired by the gifts given by Louis XIV. His proximity to the emperor allows him to discover with wonder the old summer palace (Yuanming). He described his gardens in one of his letters which turned Europe upside down and which was at the origin of the fashion for Anglo-Chinese gardens. In Yuanmingyuan, he made European palaces for the emperor in which the various Western objects from his collection were stored. These disappeared in 1860 during the Opium Wars. This is a major shock for the Chinese. At the height of his glory, Jean-Denis Attiret refuses the mandarinate. He was put more and more aside until his death in 1768.

This book is a favorite in more than one way. In addition to its high-quality appendices (indexes and chronologies), it tells the unusual story of a Western painter who was very close to the Chinese emperor. Through his career but also many extracts from his letters, we discover "from the inside" the feelings of the artist, his wonders and his annoyances. The book reveals a certain number of prejudices on both the Western and Asian sides. A very human book for the general public in the lineage of those who advocate a story in equal parts. The many explanations allow the reader to better understand the artist's itinerary. Note however the absence of iconographic representations which would have greatly contributed to the reader's immersion. Despite this reservation, we strongly recommend this book to travel enthusiasts and in particular to long-distance historical journeys. The book also provides a glimpse of the many cultural bridges that have been established: if chinoiseries are popular in the 18th century in Europe, we should not neglect the eastern counterpart illustrated by the European palaces of the Yuanmingyuan.

From one sun to another. Jean-Denis Attiret Jesuit missionary painter of the Emperor of China, by Violette Fris-Larrouy. Editions La Bisquine, November 2017.


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