Saint, Warrior, or Lunatic: Art Review of Bastien-Lepage of Lorraine’s “Joan of Arc”

 Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I walk through the wide-framed, grey walls of Gallery 800, the Rodin Gallery, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Detailed forms of human statues, made of various bronze and clay materials, are riddled throughout. But in the hallway right outside the gallery my eyes stop, mesmerized. A teenage woman with a face of piercing dedication and purity stands in a lonely looking garden. The plaque reads: Bastien-Lepage of Lorraine’s “Joan of Arc.”

Painted oil on canvas in 1879, Joan of Arc stands in her parent’s garden at Domremy, donning the simple clothes of a 15th century peasant girl—a blue tunic shirt and a bland, brown skirt. Her left hand grasps a tree in the foreground, and her eyes face upwards. Upon closer look, it appears she is gazing at the saints Michael, Margaret, and Catherine who float in the background. Most piercing, though, are Joan’s eyes—fierce, unyielding, pure— set in her determined face.

Bastien-Lepage worked with several tensions seamlessly: accounting for Joan’s commonness as a peasant girl, while still showing her uniqueness in her claimed supernatural visions and experiences. By painting the thin, wispy spirits of the saints, and posturing Joan as sensitively and intently listening to them through her apparent bodily and facial expressions, Bastien-Lepage seems to be making the controversial claim that he believes Joan was really visited by divine presences. By portraying Saint Margaret as a kind intercessor, and Saint Michael as the warrior, Bastien-Lepage shows the saints will meet Joan’s various future needs as she continues to listen to their voices.

Many artists, scholars, and cult leaders have twisted the life of Joan to fit their feminist or nationalist agenda. Bastien-Lepage does not. His portrayal is true to the accounts of primary sources like Christian de Pizan, a historian for Charles VI of France, in her epic poem “Ditte de Jehanne d' Arc,” and Joan’s visions as accounted by her heresy trial records.

Destroyed chairs and boxes, strewn among the green grass and discreet flowers, show the tension of the 100 Years War—Joan, is caught in the middle of a peaceful space, immediately surrounded by saints and nature. Yet, raging around her is carnage and destruction.

Bastien-Lepage’s portrayal reminds me of the human need for stability and security in the supernatural, especially amidst turbulent times. Likewise, it reminds me of the power of peace found in listening to the Divine, preparing one for a life like Joan’s—in leading and inspiring France to victory, and peace after bloody years of turmoil.