Bordeaux 1745 – Paris 1809
Saint Mary Magdalene in the Desert
Oil on canvas
205.7 x 195.4 cm
Purchase, the Museum Campaign 1988-1993 Fund, inv. 2003.1
After spending time in Rome, Taillasson, a Neoclassical history painter, settled in Paris where he was accepted at the Royal Academy of Painting. He was more concerned with capturing emotion than ideal beauty. His work is characterized by a sentimentalized presentation of tragedy, achieved with a limited palette and elaborate composition reminiscent of both Greuze and Poussin. The imploring face of the penitent sinner harks back to his early success as a student painter, when he was twice winner of the "Competition for facial expression". The sobriety of the composition is tempered by the delicate handling of details. The imposing rock in the background throws the saint’s figure into a typically Neoclassical kind of relief. This shaded and barren refuge expresses the agonies of the penitent, suggesting a new attitude towards nature. Although the overall colour scheme is restricted to cool, muted shades, some notes of warm colour subtly heighten the emotional tone in an evocative diagonal: the dawn, the reddened eyes and pleading lips, and the red sash lead the viewer’s eye to the overturned jewellery box.