The subject of this mysterious painting is a beautiful philosophical lesson.
Herodotus (and later also Leo Tolstoy) told the story of the 6th century BC meeting of the wise Athenian lawgiver Solon with the richest man of those days, King Croesus of Lydia. Solon refused to call Croesus the richest/happiest man on earth for Fate can bring misery to a rich man and happiness to a poor man. The story of Croesus’ further life would prove Solon had been right.
This intriguing subject has been executed in the most daring way by Vignon and his workshop. Indeed Vignon was known for his rapidity, not only in producing paintings, but also children. He is said to have had 35 children, and “some” of them were active in his workshop.
According to Paola Pacht Bassan,i the author of the sole monograph about Vignon dating already from 1992, the opulent still life was painted by the master, the figures by his workshop.
About the subject of our painting : Croesus showing Solon his treasures
The subject is taken from the "Histories" of the 5th century BC Greek writer Herodotus.
It tells of the Lydian king Croesus meeting with Solon.
Lydia was situated in the Western part of Asia Minor, this is present-day Turkey. Its capital was Sardis. Under the rule of Croesus, Lydia attained its greatest splendour. The expression "as rich as Croesus" comes from the legendary wealth of the king who reigned from 560 to 546 BC.
The fame of the splendid court of Croesus at Sardis attracted many visitors. One of them was Solon, the wise Athenian lawgiver. The king proudly displayed his treasures and asked Solon who was the happiest man that he had met. Solon does not name Croesus, instead he answered that he could call no man happy until his life had ended and that humble people were often more content than the wealthiest kings. Croesus thought he was a fool.
This moralistic tale was very popular in the 17th century for it reflected the culture's ambivalent attitudes toward wealth and consumption.
After Solon left Lydia the gods had great misfortune in store for Croesus. Cyrus the Great of Persia, extending his vast domains, was soon threatening the kingdom of Lydia. Croesus consulted the oracle of Delphi in Greece. The oracle replied: "If Croesus goes to war he will destroy a great empire." So Croesus went out to meet the army of Cyrus and was utterly defeated in 546 BC: by going to war he destroyed his own great empire.
The story goes on to relate that Cyrus ordered Croesus to be burned alive. When Croesus saw the flames creeping upward to consume him, he remembered the words of the wise Solon and cried out, "O Solon! Solon! Solon!" For only now had Croesus understood the lesson of Solon: “fate can bring misery to a rich man and happiness to a poor man”.
Supposedly Cyrus was so moved by the story of how Solon had warned the proud king that he ordered Croesus to be released. Croesus asked the proud king "what your soldiers are doing now?", showing the Persian soldiers taking all the treasures and destroying everything; Cyrus replied "They are plundering your city"; then Croesus said "They are not plundering my city, it's your city now and your soldiers are destroying your city". After that short conversation Cyrus the Great stopped his soldiers...
About Claude Vignon
Important French painter; also printmaker, illustrator and art dealer.
Tours 1593 – 1670 Paris.
Painter of religious, historical, mythological subjects, genre scenes and of portraits.
Pupil in Paris of the Mannerist painter Jacob Bunel, who belonged to the Second School of Fontainebleau.
Until the age of thirty Claude Vignon travelled to Rome and also to Spain. In Barcelona he was attacked by eight bandits, one wounded him in the face.
He returned to France in 1623, where he married in 1624. After the death of his first wife he married a second time in 1644. He is said to have had 35 children, 24 of them are documented, some of them as painters in their fathers’ workshop: amongst them his sons Claude the Younger (1633–1703) and Philippe (1638–1701) and his daughter Charlotte (1639–?).
He was active under King Louis XIII and during the first part of the long reign of Louis XIV.
Although he is considered one of the most important and most distinctive French painters of his generation, his largely eclectic style is a mix of different, mostly foreign influences :
- Mannerist through his Master Bunel,
- Caravaggesque through Bartolomeo Manfredi,
- Venetian through Domenico Fetti,
- finally Dutch through Rembrandt and his precursors, such as Adam Elsheimer, Pieter Lastman, Jakob Pynas and particularly Leonard Bramer.
Christopher Wright says that Vignon started in a late Mannerist style in France, then fell under the spell of Caravaggio in Rome and after his final return to France, about 1627, reverted to a kind of backward-looking Mannerism full of his own idiosyncrasies in the form of extravagant colour-schemes.
About our painting
Vignon’s paintings are vibrantly coloured, often bizarrely expressive, magnificently lit and produced in a rapid “fa presto” technique, resulting in an almost electric brushwork. He is admired for his rendering of textiles, gold and precious stones. Our painting is typical of his taste for the exotic.
Vignon had a very long and very successful career, especially in Paris.
He was leading here an important workshop, including some of his own children. It is not always clear in how far the paintings given to Vignon are completely autograph.
In the case of our painting, we have a certificate by Robert Creuzet (1991) stating it is a masterpiece by Vignon, while Paola Pacht Bassani in her book on Vignon (1992) states the painting is very probably due to two different hands. According to her Vignon painted the very beautiful bottom half with the golden treasure, an anonymous hand from the workshop painted the upper part with the heads of the protagonists.
Madam Pacht Bassani also mentions a fragment with only the upper half of the figures, in The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, which she considers to be by Vignon. It is true that the faces in our painting have been brushed in a slightly weaker, less expressive way.
The author dates both paintings in the 1630s, maybe circa 1635, so these are fairly mature works, which date rather early in Vignon’s Parisian career (1623-1670).
While the Bowes fragment seems originally to have belonged to a larger canvas, she also mentions a “Vignon” painting of the same subject, oil on panel, 30 X 24 cm, which was auctioned in 1769.
Christopher Wright compared the fragment of Croesus and Solon from the Bowes Musuem at Baranard Castle (and therefore also our painting) with an Ecco Homo painting sold at the Lindsay Art Gallery in London, which dates from the same period (in his opinion late 1620s – early 1630s). He states that in these paintings there are still reminiscences of Vignon’s Caravaggesque past but they are overlaid with a new decorative sensuality, typical of a new sensibility emerging in Paris at that time. This was a broadening of taste away from the Rubens dominated 1620s (the Medici Cycle for the Queen Mother Marie de Medici). The Paris of the young King Louis XIII in the 1630s could appreciate every austerity from Georges de La Tour to Poussin himself. Yet at the same time Vignon’s sensuality, bold colour and complete lack of academic rules, could hold its place in a period when Paris witnessed an enormous creative outburst.
Provenance of our painting
Collection G. Glaeyssens, Belle Fontaine, Seine-et-Oise
Christie’s, London, July 17th 1970
Central Picture Galleries, New York
Bob Jones University, Greenville
Christie’s, New York, November 4th 1986
Art gallery Lupu, Paris,1989
Private collection, Holland
Bibliography of our painting
G. Isarlo, Caravage et les caravagistes européens, Aix-en-Provence, 1941, P. 249.
W. Fischer, « Claude Vignon », Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, Zwolle, 1963, XIV, Nr. 2, P. 182.
The Connoisseur, Londres, 1970, P. 714.
Larousse, Paris, 1974, Pl. 670, P. 271.
C. Wright, « Claude Vignon’s Croesus showing Solon his treasures », The Burlington Magazine, Londres, 1976, Nr. CXVIII, April, Nr. 877, P. 229, Fig. 49.
Catalogue of the exhibition « 17th century French painting in American private collections”, Paris, New York, Chicago, 1982, Nr. 4, P. 374, Fig. 4.
Catalogue of the exhibition « Tableaux français et italiens du XVIIème siècle du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours » (« 17th century French paintings from the Musée des Beax-Arts in Tours »), Musée de Richelieu, Château d’Azay-le-Ferron, Tours, 1982-1983, P. 31, Pl. 1.
C. Wright, The French Painters of the Seventeenth Century, Londres, 1985, P. 270.
P. Pacht Bassani, Claude Vignon 1593-1670, Paris, 1992, P. 278 – 280, Pl. 157 RA.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it holds an essential lesson for any collector, actually for anyone: “fate can bring misery to a rich man and happiness to a poor man”.
Because it is such a magnificent, oppulent composition.
Because it is set into a magnificent wooden, sculptured frame.