French Classical Masterpiece Joins Gallery 6

August 1, 2014

A recent acquisition, Allegory of Geometry (1649), a masterpiece from a well-known series of paintings depicting the Seven Liberal Arts by the French Baroque artist Laurent de La Hyre (1606–1656),  makes its debut in Gallery 6 at the Legion of Honor this month. Other paintings in the series are held by major institutions, including the National Gallery in London (Allegory of Grammar), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Allegory of Music), and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orléans, France (Allegory of Astronomy).

This is the first painting by the artist, one of France’s foremost 17th-century painters, to enter the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s permanent collection. Born in Paris, La Hyre worked in the studio of Georges Lallemant, whose other pupils included Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674) and Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). La Hyre’s first commissions—including Pope Nicholas V before the Body of Saint Francis (1630, Musée du Louvre, Paris)—came from the Paris house of the Capuchins for their chapel devoted to Saint Francis. The success of these works of art led to other prestigious commissions, such as large-scale paintings for annual tributes to the Virgin Mary, known as the May Offertory to Notre-Dame de Paris, in 1635 and 1637 (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris). In addition to producing church altarpieces, La Hyre also made tapestry designs; cabinet paintings of mythological, pastoral, and religious scenes; and engravings.

Allegory of Geometry displays the refined classicism, rich color, and elegant forms characteristic of La Hyre’s mature work. Geometry is personified as a young woman holding a compass and right angle in one hand and a sheet inscribed with Euclidean mathematical proofs in the other. Surrounding her are examples of the practical applications of the science, including a perspectival landscape painting on an easel, a globe that refers to mapmaking, and an ancient Egyptian pyramid.

Of all the works in the series, Allegory of Geometry perhaps held the greatest personal significance for the artist, since knowledge of the discipline, in the form of perspective, was crucial for the practice of painting at the time. In the late 1630s, La Hyre studied with the mathematician Girard Desargues (1591–1661), who is considered one of the founders of projective geometry.

In Gallery 6 at the Legion of Honor, Allegory of Geometry joins a significant group of paintings by La Hyre’s contemporaries, including Claude Lorrain, Georges de La Tour, Louis Le Nain, Eustache Le Sueur, and Simon Vouet. With the acquisition of this work, the Museums now hold an important example of the classicism that dominated the art and theory of the Académie royale des peintures et des sculptures (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture), which in La Hyre’s time was newly established and would remain the central institution in French art for the next 150 years.

Image: Laurent de La Hyre, Allegory of Geometry, 1649. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Income Fund, 2014.13