LE SUEUR, Eustache
(b. 1616/17, Paris, d. 1655, Paris)
Caligula Depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother in the Tomb of his Ancestors1647
Oil on canvas, 167 x 143 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor
The artist was a pupil of Simon Vouet, but unlike his teacher he never left Paris. Le Sueur's style was based on Raphael and more immediately on Poussin. His best-known work is perhaps the series of paintings of the Life of Saint Bruno, dating from 1645-9 (Paris, Louvre). Although his style became increasingly classical, he retained a certain elegance in his draughtsmanship and use of colour.
There has been some confusion over the exact title of this imposing painting: Nero depositing the Ashes of Germanicus and the Funeral of Poppaea have both been suggested in inscriptions or commentaries to various engravings after the picture. The earliest source, however, Florent Le Comte's Cabinet des singularitez d'architecture, peinture, sculpture et gravure (1699-1700), refers to the picture as Caligula depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother in the Tomb of his Ancestors. There is good reason to believe that this is the correct title since Le Comte claimed to be basing his statement on information recorded in a studio book kept by the artist and retained by the Le Sueur family. The painting, together with another entitled Lucius Albinus and the Vestal Virgins, was commissioned for Claude de Guénégaud's residence in Paris in the rue Saint-Louis-au-Marais. Both are listed under the year 1647. The second painting is now lost, but it is recorded in a drawing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The classical source for the present painting is Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars:
"Gaius [Caligula] strengthened his popularity by every possible means. He delivered a funeral speech in honour of Tiberius to a vast crowd, weeping profusely all the while; and gave him a magnificent burial. But as soon as this was over he sailed for Pandataria and the Pontian Islands to fetch back the remains of his mother and his brother Nero; and during rough weather, too, in proof of devotion. He approached the ashes with the utmost reverence and transferred them to the urns with his own hands. Equally dramatic was his gesture of raising a standard on the stern of the bireme which brought the urns to Ostia, and thence up the Tiber to Rome. He had arranged that the most distinguished knights available should carry them to the Mausoleum in two biers, at about noon, when the streets were at their busiest . . . ".
Gaius Caesar, known as Caligula, the son of Germanicus and Agrippina, succeeded Tiberius as emperor in AD 37. Germanicus was the adopted son of Tiberius, who most probably had him poisoned owing to his growing popularity. The subject of Agrippina's return to Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus was a popular theme with artists during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Tiberius eliminated several members of Germanicus' family, but promoted Gaius of whom he said, 'I am nursing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the whole world.' The present subject is one that is rarely treated, whereas that of the companion painting, recounted by Livy and others, can be found in fifteenth-century Florentine art and also in the work of Le Sueur's contemporaries, Jacques Stella and Sebastien Bourdon. The theme that unites these two paintings might be said to be piety, both private in the actions of Caligula and public in the altruism of Lucius Albinus. Such demonstrations of moral virtue were often chosen as subjects for French paintings during the middle decades of the seventeenth century, in conjunction with the philosophical creed of Stoicism that Nicolas Poussin, amongst others, professed. The intellectual and physical severity of this creed is reflected in the style of the painting with its stilted composition, visual clarity, carefully demarcated spatial intervals and purity of colour, quite apart from the archaeological exactitude sought for the setting. It has been pointed out that the painting was executed during the period when Poussin's second set of the Seven Sacraments, painted for Fréart de Chantelou, could be seen in Paris. The artist made a drawing of the high priest holding the urn (Private Collection, Paris).