Louis Janmot’s “The Poem of the Soul” series is incredible. I discovered it after first encountering “The Wrong Path”:
What did Janmot paint this series, and what is he trying to convey in this arresting and ominous scene? In short, he was responding as a Christian to the dechristening of 19th century France:
Janmot has made an extraordinary accomplishment that has remained unique in Western European painting. He dedicated all his life to a series of thirty-four paintings called ‘The poem of the soul’. Eighteen of these paintings, which date from 1836 to 1855, are painted in colour. The seventeen drawings, which he made after 1855, are in black and white. The paintings are accompanied by a long poem on the same subject. Paintings and poem document and explain each other.
The poem is about the birth and life of a boy, a new soul on earth F6 . God and the angels decide on life (Génération divine), a guardian angel brings life to earth (Le passage des âmes) and the boy finds a loving mother (L’ange et la mère). The boy is joined by a companion girl (Le printemps). They play together in an ideal and untouched paradise. Both their souls retain images of their previous life in the heavens (Souvenir du ciel). The children remain together from childhood to adolescence. They leave their family (Le toit paternel), face the dangers of a secularised university (Le mauvais sentier), the wrong path for them, which will lose their souls (Le cauchemar). But they encounter a wise man who teaches them religious education (Le grain de blé) and shows them the path of Catholic faith (Première communion). The children grow up to adolescents (Virginitas) and start to love each other with a pure platonic love (L’échelle d’or). Time goes by (Rayons de soleil). They climb the hills of life (Sur la montagne), live a simple life in the midst of nature (Un soir). Their souls join (Le vol de l’âme) and fly to the heavens (L’idéal). But the boy cannot follow and is thrown back to earth where he mourns on the tomb of his beloved (Réalité).
The black and white drawings take over from that point. The boy still lingers in the solitude of a forest (Solitude), yet he finds new energy at the beaches, a new touch of infinity to his soul (L’infini). He dreams and receives the revelation of carnal beauty (Rêve de feu). The lovers are joined (Amour), but in a true sensual, earthly love now. Only for a short time: the dream ends (Adieu), the lady has to leave again. In solitude, the young man falls in despair and doubt (Le doute). This is a moment the devil has awaited (L’esprit du mal). He tempts the boy to an orgy (L’orgie), so the youth loses his soul and his God (Sans Dieu). The black hooded phantom now accompanies the man (Le fantôme), his fall continues to a total ending (Chute fatale). In a macabre scene, the man is bound to the corpse of his beloved (Supplice de Mézence), tearing it with him across mountains, and all the generations of Evil are visited by him (La génération du mal). His soul however longs again for purity. He prays and his mother intercedes on his behalf to God (Intercession maternelle). Finally, faith triumphs over evil (La délivrance) and the soul is elevated to the Heavens (Sursum corda).
Janmot has been thoroughly inspired for his poem and series of pictures by Catholic faith. He was one of the representatives of a struggling generation. Since the end of the eighteenth century France and Europe had entered a struggle for the education of the young. For Janmot this was a struggle for the soul of man. …
His painting ‘Le mauvais sentier’, the wrong path, is a hallucinating representation of Janmot’s feeling about secular education in France. At each step of the children along their road of knowledge, science and literature professors grow out of the wall and lead, tempt them further into what Janmot considered to be the wrong, entirely secularised path. This kind of education corrupted the soul. …
Janmot uses Classicist techniques for presenting profoundly Romantic and religious ideas. He applied themes from antiquity however as symbols of the republic and past revolutions: the ‘Orgy’ is in a Greek temple and ‘Chute fatale’ or ‘Fatal Fall’ uses forms that could come out of an Ingres or a David painting. Janmot deliberately wanted to break with Neo-Classical French style and clearly favoured the purity of untouched nature.
The paintings of Janmot are magnificent, large and important works of art that illustrate one of the great tendencies of the battle of ideas that were the essence of the nineteenth century. The Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon shows them in all their glory next to each other. The paintings are to be admired as the dedication of a great artist to his ideas. Janmot of course was a great Romantic artist. He devoted his life and his creativity to one idea only, a eulogy in the defence of the soul. Here was an artist not gifted with the power of a genius, devoting all his creative energy to an idea that most people of his times and almost all of ours would mock. We may find Janmot very naive and we may regret his futile effort. Yet, his series on the soul represents the cravings of many persons of Western Europe of the nineteenth century. Many Romantics sought the ideals of medieval and Renaissance Christianism and even though Europe was de-christened in the end, the values and messages of Christianism did not die out.
“A eulogy in defense of the soul”.