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Exhibitions and Projects
4 February–2 March 2016

Revelations, February 2016

Franc Kavčič/Caucig: Wife of Phocion and Cornelia

In contradistinction to the modern title of the painting Phocion with His Wife and a Wealthy Woman of Ionia, before 1801, the contemporary reproductive print by Michele Benedetti (c. 1802−1810)  puts it unambiguously: Wife of Phocion and a Wealthy Woman of Ionia. Kavčič’s literary sourcewas the Lives,by Plutarch, which is also evident from the motif of Demetrius Poliorcetes, Lamia and Her Confidante Demo, a lost companion piece to this painting, surviving in a reproductive print. Looking at the reception of Plutarch in Europe, we find the earliest translation of Phocion’s biography in the humanist milieu of Venice between 1410 and 1430, when it was translated first by Guarino da Verona and later by Verona’s pupil Leonardo Giustinian, who was the warden of Udine in 1426 and a member of the Council of Ten from 1428 onwards. Interest in Phocion’s story waned in the following centuries due to the complete incompatibility of the idea of an ascetic philosopher-general, who is dedicated to the greater good, with the idea of a Machiavellian and later an absolute ruler. Phocion’s fate mirrors Socrates’, whose death sentence was also based on fabricated accusations. His moment finally came in 1763 when Gabriel Bonnot de Mably published his Entretiens de Phocion (Dialogues with Phocion) on the relationship between morality and politics, which was in a relatively short time translated to several European languages; German edition was published within one year and received award for the best book in Bern. Phocion as a character was used in 1787 by Ludwig von Schlötzer from the University of Göttingen for the biography of the Duke of Brunswick, who was let go by his ungrateful Dutch patrons despite many years of service. The book caused a scandal in academic circles due to the high royalty payments, philological mistakes and redactions that swiftly followed one other. At the end of the century the story of Phocion was common knowledge in the intellectual circles of the Western world, and the scandal caused the interpretations of Phocion’s policies to be re-examined; in the light of the struggle against the Ottoman presence in Europe, his actions were judged to be ineffectual and hesitant compromises. Phocion’s honour was finally upheld by Jakob Bernays in 1881, who wrote the first monograph on the philosopher-general through the prism of Bismarck’s unification of Germany.
In fine arts, the motif of Phocion is rare. It was overshadowed by Socrates’ dramatic demise during the revival of the Stoic tradition around 1600, but he is found in connection with the life of Alexander the Great, as is clearly shown by Gioacchino Assereto’s (1600−1649) paintings Phocion Declines the Gifts from Alexander the Great and Socrates Takes the Hemlock. In 1648 Nicholas Poussin used the Phocion story to explore a human’s right to a burial. Dead Phocion, labelled a traitor, has no right to be buried, so his wife orders that his body be secretly moved to Megara, where she cremates him and places his ashes next to the family hearth. Conversely, the death of Socrates was painted by Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy in 1650. Jacques-Philippe-Joseph de Saint-Quentin (1738–after 1785) and Jean-Baptiste Alizard (c. 1745−?) used the identical Socrates motif to compete for the Prix de Rome in 1762. In the following two decades, the programme of the French Academy favoured national history over themes of Antiquity, which left the English painters to promulgate Neoclassicism. The English also influenced the French painters at the Roman branch of the École des Beaux-Arts. Among the students in this school was also Angelika Kauffman. She came to Rome in 1782 and her salons in the former residence of Anton Raphael Mengs became the meeting place of European intelligentsia. Kavčič and Kauffman might have been meeting during his sojourn in Rome from 1781 to 1787; undoubtedly, Kavčič knew her work in great detail. He certainly knew Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, commissioned from Kauffmann by the Royal Family of the Two Scillies. The motif was acclaimed and well-known at the time and comes from Valerius Maximus’ Factorum et dictorum memorabilium libri IX, c. 31 AD, (Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings) which is actually a manual for orators. The title of the motif is an inscription from the Monument to Cornelia at the Forum Romanum where she was the first woman so honoured. Her character is an exemplum virtutis, a moral ideal for women and their role.
Valerius Maximus was a source to Plutarch. Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, is an identical formula (chreia) to that used in the anecdote of Phocion’s wife. Kavčič transferred the figure of the bragging Campanian woman from the Kauffmann painting to the Wife of Phocion and a Wealthy Woman of Ionia. His design carefully builds the dramatic arch with a juxtaposition of values. Phocion is reading a passage from The Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides, where the author and role model criticizes the abuse of democracy that sealed Phocion’s fate. Facing him is the cyst, adorned with jewellery, and the Ionian lady holding up a piece of her dress made of precious fabric. The principle of the decisive moment is encapsulated by the index finger of Phocion’s wife, who is embracing her husband with a gesture symmetrical to the Ionian clutching her wealth. The wife is symbolically piercing her guest to teach her a lesson: my treasure is Phocion!
Jacques Louis David left Rome again a year before Kavčič. Before he departed, David may have shown his studies or even the composition of the painting The Death of Socrates to a select few. In any case, the painting was accessible before long in a reproductive print after the 1787 Salon exhibition. Visual art sources that Kavčič employed are concentrated in the 1780s. It is an open question how far back from the first mention his Phocion painting can be dated. The answer may lie in the context of the commission. Both paintings, Phocion and Poliorcetes, depict female virtues and vices; Phocion’s wife against the Ionian, and Demo, understood as a fiancée, virtuous woman against lascivious Lamia and sacrilegious fianceé. The nuptial theme could be explained if the paintings were a gift to Franz Philip Josef, Baron of Schönborn-Buchheim, who was married on 20 October 1789 to Marie Sophie, Countess of Leyen and Hohengeroldseck –  provided that the Schönborns, the owners of the two paintings in 1810, were indeed the clients who had commissioned them.
Andrej Smrekar
4 February–2 March 2016
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana