Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) lies on a bed drinking medicine given to him by Philip, his doctor. Philip has been accused of treachery against his leader in a letter, which he is reading aloud to Alexander. Hands raised in horror, eyes widened, their companions wait to discover the truth. Alexander gazes towards Philip to acknowledge his innocence and loyalty, which is further proven as Alexander’s health improves. A male figure glances towards us to invite our reaction.
This scene is inspired by Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. He frequently appeared in seventeenth-century paintings and tapestries as a popular heroic figure, although this story was rarely depicted. A shield hanging above the bed reflects his military success as leader of Greece and an expanding empire.
Through most of the eighteenth century this painting was part of the Orléans collection, as one of the most celebrated works.
Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) drinks medicine given to him by Philip, his doctor. Philip has been accused of treachery in a letter, which he is reading aloud to Alexander. Hands raised in horror, eyes widened, their companions wait to discover the truth. Alexander gazes towards Philip to acknowledge his innocence and loyalty, which is further proven as Alexander’s health improves. On the far right, an elderly man stares out of the picture. We are drawn closer to the action, faced with deciding if Philip is a faithful companion. An ornate incense burner gently smokes in the foreground, defining the space between the viewer and the scene.
This scene is taken from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. Le Sueur probably knew the narrative through a French translation of the text published by Jacques Amyot in 1645, several years before the artist attempted this subject. Alexander frequently appeared in seventeenth-century paintings and tapestries as a popular heroic figure, although this story was rarely depicted. A shield hanging above Alexander’s bed references his military success: as leader of the Greeks he expanded his empire to become the ruler of Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria.
Le Sueur relied on several visual sources for his composition, including paintings by the most celebrated French painter working during the same period, Nicolas Poussin: Death of Germanicus (Minneapolis Institute of Art) and Extreme Unction (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), taken from the artist’s first set of Seven Sacraments. Both paintings include a suffering military figure, reclining on a bed in the centre, surrounded by anguished woman and soldiers. Giovanni Lanfranco’s oval painting of 1616 includes a bed positioned at the same angle and with a canopy. Another likely source was Raphael’s compositions for the Vatican Loggie of Isaac blessing Jacob and Isaac and Esau, which found wide success as engravings by Lanfranco and Sisto Badalocchio.
Le Sueur painted only a few works in a circular format (known as a ‘tondo’ in Italian). Perhaps his patron requested this, to suit a particular location or decorative function. Or it could have been a way of following a tradition established during the Renaissance and occasionally chosen by Michelangelo and Raphael, although mostly for paintings of religious subjects.
In 1648, the same year he produced this work, Le Sueur had become a founder member of the Académie Royale. This resulted in him securing prestigious commissions, of which this painting is a leading example. The work was commissioned by Jérôme de Nouveau, a French government minister, for his Paris residence.
Through most of the eighteenth century, this painting was part of the Orléans collection. It was one of the most celebrated works in the Palais Royale in Paris, according to contemporary guidebooks and travel diaries. For much of the period it hung alongside another painting now owned by the National Gallery: The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo. Following the momentous dispersal of the Orléans collection during the 1790s, the painting was taken to England, as part of a large group of French and Italian works. Remaining in private collections throughout the nineteenth century, it was rediscovered and bought by the Gallery in 1999.
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