December 3, 2009 by Amy Elliott Bragg
UMMA’s magnificent Maximilien Sebastien Foy
The mister and I took a field trip to Ann Arbor last Sunday, desperate to get out of the apartment and into the world after three and a half long days of family visits, plans with out-of-town friends and eating/drinking too much.
Our destination: the beautifully renovated University of Michigan Museum of Art. We arrived with no particular art-seeing aims, just the need to give our brains something to do besides worry about the week to come.
The first painting we saw was on a lamp post flag outside the building, inviting us to get inspired — a handsome face, a gilded uniform.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“Oliver Hazard Perry?” I think he was half-joking; Perry has been on the brain.
The larger-than-life portrait hanging gloriously in the Museum Apse is actually of General Maximilien Sébastien Foy, a French military leader and statesman who led campaigns in Portugal, Spain and served in the Battles of the Pyrennes and Waterloo. Foy was severely wounded an astonishing 15 times during his career; during the Battle of Orthez, he was left for dead on the field.
Maximilien Sébastien Foy was an adored public figure, according to his obituary in an 1826 issue of the British Register of Literature, Sciences and Belles-Lettres, perhaps due to his career as a writer and eloquent public speaker after he retired from the military in 1815. He also seem to have been suspicious of Napoleon’s absolutist aims; one anecdote has him refusing to toast to the Emperor’s health:
After one of Buonaparte’s victories, he was at a diner of the officers, when, upon “the health of the emperor” having been given, he alone declined drinking it. In vain was he pressed on the point. “I am not thirsty,” said he.
More than 6000 mourners attended his funeral procession, including the Duc D’Orléans Louis-Phillipe III, who would become the last King of France, and the founder of French romanticism, the Vicomte de Chateaubriand.
Baron François Gérard, a distinguished painter and portraitist and a student of Jacques-Louis David, made this post-mortem portrait on commission from Foy’s widow, but refused payment, as the General was a personal friend. Maybe it’s projection, but to me the portrait seems emotionally bright, affectionate; set against a broiling storm, Foy’s face and hands are ethereal, his aspect resolute but peaceful. His decorations are fabulously wrought and, although they were earned on earth, they radiate as though they were adorned from on high.
And of course, it helps that the painting is almost eight-and-a-half feet tall, hung a few feet off the ground so the General towers over you from the mountain, his black cape swelling in the wind, enfolding the General in the warmth and transcendence of death.
It’s a lush, grand-manner military hero portrait, but it’s so strangely moving. You should go see it.