Louis Janmot, The Poem of the Soul
Le Poème de l’âme (The Poem of the Soul), a pictorial and literary work in one, is a lifetime project produced by Lyon-born painter Louis Janmot between 1835 and 1881. It tells the epic tale of a soul on Earth through thirty-four paintings and drawings, held at Lyon’s Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts), forming two distinct series, with a poem for each artwork. The exhibition invites you to explore the story of this soul, to embark on an initiatory journey with the characters and follow them in their quest for the absolute.
Though partially presented at the 1855 Universal Exhibition, where it garnered the attention of Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier, the cycle never achieved the success Janmot hoped for. Might Janmot have been too unusual for his time, as Eugène Delacroix, an admirer and champion of Le Poème de l’âme, believed? In the exhibition, a series of “cabinets” explore the philosophical, spiritual and literary inspirations of the painter and poet and reveal his affinities with other artists, from William Blake to Odilon Redon, which anchor Le Poème de l’âme firmly in the nineteenth century.
Le Poème de l’âme, part I (1835-1854)
As it was produced over a twenty-year period, the first cycle of Le Poème de l’âme might have made for something highly disparate in terms of style. Yet this series of eighteen paintings is visually very coherent. The backgrounds are suggestive of theatre sets, in front of which the characters move laterally, as if on a stage, which only adds to the sense of continuity.
The painter and poet recounts the initiatory journey of a soul, depicted as a young boy dressed in pink, whom we see grow and develop from one painting to the next. On his existential quest he meets his soulmate – a young girl dressed in white – who, like him, longs for Heaven, purity and harmony. We follow the various stages and tribulations of their journey, from birth and childhood to education, burgeoning love and dreams of the ideal. The apparent tranquillity of this first series, in contrast with the second, is often contradicted by details tucked away in the paintings, as well as the verse poems that emphasise the tragedy of the soul’s fate at each turn.
Le Poème de l’âme, part II (1854-1879)
For the second cycle of Le Poème de l’âme, Janmot abandoned painting for drawing. Charcoal is highlighted with colour on sheets a similar size to that of his paintings. These are no longer preparatory sketches but finished pieces, some of which were shown at the Salons in 1861 and 1868.
Here, the atmosphere is more sombre, reinforced by the choice of medium. Deeply affected by the death of his beloved, the young man is stricken by despair. He seeks an escape through pleasure, yielding to temptation and doubt, but finds only suffering. A happy yet ambiguous ending marks the culmination of this initiatory journey, when he is reunited with his beloved in Heaven.
The pessimistic tone echoes the hardships faced by Janmot himself. The mood is also more political, in line with the developing Catholic conservatism of the 1860s and ’70s.
Cabinet n° 1: Pictorial and illustrated epics
Traditionally, cycles of paintings were produced for buildings. Examples include the Story of Psyche (1518) by Raphael for the Villa Farnesina in Rome and the Life of St Bruno (1645–48) by Eustache Le Sueur for the Charterhouse of Paris (Musée du Louvre), both of which the young Janmot would have been familiar with. But Le Poème de l’âme was not installed in any specific location. Instead, the concept is governed by the alliance of painting and poetry, as in the “illuminated books” of William Blake. As such, literature and illustration represent the more likely sources of Janmot’s inspiration. The artist drew on the epic and philosophical poetry of his time, such as Alphonse de Lamartine’s La Chute d’un ange (Fall of an Angel, 1838) or Alexandre Soumet’s La Divine Épopée (Divine Epic, 1840), or the great European epics interpreted by Romantic artists, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy (1303–21), John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) or The Song of the Nibelungs, a medieval German legend.
Cabinet n° 2: The soul and the guardian angel
During the nineteenth century – and particularly with Romanticism, followed by Symbolism – representations of the soul took on a considerable importance. Artists produced varied responses to the same iconographic problem of depicting an immaterial entity, distinct from the body and with an existence beyond death. The soul is illustrated by turns as a winged female figure, an allegory of purity and spirituality, or as a kind of shadow or flux escaping from the body. Janmot, meanwhile, represents it in the guise of a young man with the supernatural ability to rise up towards the heavens. The lightness of the soul, delivered from the weight of the earthly world, is a common denominator in various works. The wings – an attribute of the soul – may cause it to be confused with its celestial counterpart, the guardian angel, another figure that achieved a great deal of popular success in the nineteenth century, from children’s literature and manuals of piety to the greatest literary and artistic masterpieces of the time.
Cabinet n° 3: The ideal
Janmot’s work is characterised by a single, seemingly timeless, female archetype who first appears in his early creations. Although he used loved ones, including his wife and daughters, as models, he transformed them through his studies into his aesthetic ideal. His taste was an amalgam of several formal sources, from the perfection of drawings by his master, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, to antiquity and the grace of Florentine Renaissance painting, particularly that of Sandro Botticelli.
The female figures in Le Poème de l’âme combine references to the Virgin Mary – the veneration of whom was particularly prevalent at the time – with contemporary or past literature. Janmot was very directly inspired by the Divine Comedy, by the medieval Florentine poet Dante, which was then extremely popular in both Romantic and Catholic circles. Traces of it appear in the hero’s journey, a quest for a lost love whose name, Béatrix, is borrowed from Dante.
Cabinet n° 4: Landscape and reality
Landscape occupies a predominant place in the scenes of Le Poème de l’âme, taking an active role through its accordance with the main character’s mood. Although he trained as a history painter, Janmot developed an appreciation of landscape painting thanks to his two fellow Lyon-born artists, Paul Flandrin and Florentin Servan. With them, he learned to study nature in order to find motifs that he would then revisit in his compositions.
Most of the settings are inspired by Bugey. Located in the department of the Ain, not far from Lyon, the mountainous part of the region corresponds to the southern extremity of the Jura. It offers a series of contrasts, from steep cliffs and plateaus to lush green meadows and marshes. Janmot was fond of this region, the home of his maternal family. In the summers of 1840 and 1850, he stayed in the village of Lacoux, at the house of his friend Servan. Flandrin would frequently join them, and the three would work together in the surrounding countryside.
Cabinet n° 5: Nightmare, the dangers of the subconscious
Dreams, highly present in Le Poème de l’âme, are by turns melancholic, mystical and sensual; they also venture into dangerous territory when dream becomes nightmare, the title of the eighth composition. Janmot may have been aware of this theme – then highly popular in literature and the arts – through the engravings of works by his predecessors, such as the Swiss-born Johann Heinrich Füssli (Henry Fuseli), the Englishman William Blake and the Spaniard Francisco de Goya. In turn, he explored psychic torments and what would soon come to be known as the “subconscious”.
It may have been two alienist doctor friends who introduced the artist to these themes, which would soon be echoed by the Symbolists and later, in the era of psychoanalysis, by the Surrealists. Odilon Redon came into direct contact with Janmot and may have been inspired by his use of charcoal. Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí were not familiar with Le Poème de l’âme, but Dalí spoke of his curiosity for the artist upon discovering his work in a 1968 exhibition.