Manon Lascaut (1892, oil), Dahesh Museum
Maurice Leloir (French, 1853 - 1940)
French artist, Maurice Leloir, famous for illustrating the Musketeer stories of Alexandre Dumas, created this romantic piece in 1892. It represents the penultimate scene in the book L'Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by Antoine François Prévost (the Abbé Prévost), in which the hero, des Grieux, must bury his lover, Manon, who had succumbed to exposure while fleeing pursuers in the wilderness of French Louisiana. The book, though controversial, was very popular, with several editions being printed in various languages, and with several operas composed around the story's theme. It was most likely Jules Massenet's 1884 operatic version, for which Leloir designed the theatre posters, that fostered the association between the artist and Prévost's tale, and which inspired the artist to revisit this sad story.
The tale of Manon Lescaut was a familiar one, in which two people fall into an overwhelming, ultimately fatal, passionate love, and who live more "intensely" while battling the accepted societal and familial dictates which try to keep them apart. Modern viewers need not know the context of L'Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut to understand Leloir's painting. It is easy to discern that the picture portrays death and unfulfilled love, which was central to Prévost's romantic tale. Leloir does not tell the spectator that Manon is a faithless harlot who will go with any man promising her a monied future, nor does he expose des Grieux as a man bereft of honor, who gambles, cheats, and steals to provide the luxuries which might keep Manon in his life. Instead, the artist gives the viewer the ultimate heart-breaking emotion which comes of loss, in the moment of the story in which the audience forgives the transgressions of the characters' past, and finds empathy for these lowly creatures.
The scene which Leloir presents, happens just after the star-crossed lovers finally find peace, but are prevented from being together forever by death, and every element of the painting points to the despondency felt by the character left alone. The angle of view, the barren landscape, the greyed colors, the male figure's expression and body posture, and the values of an overcast day, all support the melancholia of the moment. My favorite aspects, however, are the claw-like hand marks in the sand, showing des Grieux's desperation as he dug Manon's final resting place by hand, and the heart-shaped, shallow grave which symbolizes their love.
Below is the same scene from L'Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, as painted by Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1852 - 1929). Dagnan-Bouveret executed this acclaimed painting fourteen years before Leloir created his version of Manon Lescaut, and perhaps it served as inspiration for Leloir. Though the figures show the skill so typical in Dagnan-Bouveret's work, and are perhaps better than Leloir's, the painting on a whole feels weaker. The emotion and the environment both are flatter. Unfortunately, the location of Dagnan-Bouveret's Manon Lescaut (1878) is unknown, and all that is available is black and white reproductions of the reduction of the original painting, so to make a completely fair comparison is impossible at this time.