What are you looking at?
Evariste Luminais, The Sons of Clovis II (1880) in the Art Gallery of New South Wales
This is, without doubt, the strangest painting in the New South Wales Art Gallery (Fig. 1). Painted on a heroic scale, with the figures almost life-size, it is impossible to ignore and while I am looking pools of people gather around it. Two boys float feet-first towards us on what looks like a luxuriously upholstered bed but which is actually a raft. The fine silk textiles and their embroidered garments contrast with the rough-hewn planks of wood beneath them. In the background fine tongues of land project into an expanse of water, which is a dull muddy yellow, the colour of the Yarra river. The raft drifts on an angle to the picture plane, so that the first thing we notice are the magnified feet of the boy on the left, which thrust into our space (Fig. 2). They are covered in thick white cloth, held in place with leather strapping. On his left foot the cloth has fallen away to reveal his big toe. The creamy white of the bandages forms the brightest part of the painting. The strangeness of the scene grows the more you look at it. The only thing moving is the drifting raft, the ruffled surface of the water, and the rich embroidered cloth covering the boys, which has slipped and trails unnoticed in the water (Fig. 3). The boys are remarkable for their stillness, and the dark-haired boy on the right, with his glassily bulging eyes and beaky nose has his hands resting on his chest and looks already dead (Fig. 4). The other blonde boy is alive as his eyes are open and his drawn features are picked out by the pale sunlight. He looks out at us with an expression of such abject despair, pain and shock, his face showing the marks of his ordeal, with deep shadows under his eyes and a pitiful down-turned mouth.
So what is the subject of this strange floating sickbed that drifts towards us? I had always thought that these figures were invalids, or perhaps lepers, or victims of a epidemic, set adrift to prevent contagion, and left to die under a leaden sky. But the story behind the painting is more sinister and gothic than this. These are the sons of Clovis II, who rebelled against their father, and as a punishment were hamstrung by their mother. What we see is the tragic aftermath of this mutilation. The boys are lying because they cannot stand, and in this crippled state were set adrift on the Seine. The gold, jewel-studded shrine hanging on the front of the raft, and the rich textiles all hint at their royal status, while the deep red of the high cushions behind their head symbolize blood and the violence done to them.
© Lisa Beaven 2010
Painting details: Oil on canvas, no dimensions given, bought by the New South Wales Gallery in 1886.
6 thoughts on “Lisa Beaven – ‘The Sons of Clovis II’”
Fascinating. Is anything known about the little shrine? Could it have the figure of St Francis in it holding a child? – it’s hard to see. Is there a suggestion that the brothers are being thrust away from the land (the site of their punishment) by some-one who, unable to bury them, nonetheless wishes them to be treated with some dignity? The artist is surely sympathetic; perhaps even invoking Arthurian connotations?
It is very hard to find out more about Bathilde…usually referred to as ‘the boy’s mother’. I gather she was Anglo Saxon Royal…sold into slavery..’spotted’ by..and married to, Clovis the 2nd…(Lazy) A Good looking and Bright woman…she was said to have been ‘devout!’ despite hamstringing her sons…a shocking punitive act.
I can’t find out what exactly the boys did…and how she came to be seen as a Saint despite her cruel act…?
Any ideas please..? Thank you…kristine byrne…
(currently visiting Oz I saw this pic recently)
Have you noticed that, although the covers trail in the water, they are not wet?
It irritates me every time I look at this painting.
“Sons of Clovis” is the title of a new book by David Brooks on the Ern Malley poetry hoax to be published in August 2011 by UQP. Perhaps the title draws from the belief of many commentators that the two hoaxers Harold Stewart and James McAuley were hamstrung for the rest of their lives by the poems and their aftermath. The parallels can be extended further. The raft with Clovis’ two sons drifted down the Seine and landed near Jumièges Abbey downsteam of Rouen where they took holy orders and lived out their days. See http://abbaye.jumieges.pagesperso-orange.fr/contesa.htm. Post-Malley, the hoaxers too went their holy, if separate, ways: McAuley a devout hymn-writing Catholic convert, and Stewart, who lived the last 30 years of his life in Japan, a highly respected scholar and devotee of Pure Land Buddhism.
I am just now including notes about this painting in my memoirs.
As a child (I am now 74) my grandmother took us to the Art Gallery on a regular basis. This was the painting I always rushed in to see. I remembered that the explanation under it noted that the boys were punished by their mother for rebelling against their father and that she had had their feet burned as a punishment. It seemed to me that the raft had just been pushed off from shore and I always imagined them drifting off past all the visible points of land where there was no apparent chance to be rescued.
This too is one of my favourite paintings and each time I visit Sydney I go to see it. Today I visited the Musee des Beaux-Arts De Rouen and was more than a little surprised to see exactly (almost) the same painting hanging there! The differences include: slight variation in the background landscape, the design on the fabric edge, the youth on the left has his chin heavily upon his chest, there are flowers hanging with the shrine and a candle burning above the flowers and shrine. Given the direction of the flame the barge could be moving toward the shore! Then there is the name of the artist and the painting. Evariste-Vital Luminais (1822 – 1896) Rouen / Evariste Luminais (painting 1880) ) NSW – no doubt the same artist. “Les enerves de jumieges” (apologies I cannot find the accents on my iPad keyboard) – Jumieges is an area a couple of river bends away from Rouen – indicating that the youths in the Rouen painting where inhabitants of that area. Clovis and Balthild gifted land to aid the establishment of what became the Abbey of Jumieges.
An initial search via Wikipedia (I am not too sure of the accuracy of this site) makes no mention of any betrayal of Clovis III by any of his three sons also there is no mention of Balthild doing anything violent to her sons, in fact she appears to have been made a saint for her charitable activities. More research was called for so I have just searched the Musee website ( http://www.rouen-musees.com/Musee-des-Beaux-Arts/Les-collections/Le-salon-Les-Enerves-de-Jumieges-107.htm ) where more detail was provided and what follows is an abbreviated and hopefully encapsulation of the information.
Clovis Ii died 657 ? in his early twenties and Balthild died 680 in her early fifties. The story, which inspired the painting (The Sons of Clovis II), was created in the 12th century. The youths rebelled against their father whilst he was off on a crusade. The youths were punished by burning their muscles so they could not move. They were then set adrift on a raft (supposedly through a display of parental pity!) with an attendant (here Luminais departs from the legend) to care for them – the barge was to eventually drift toward the Abbey of Jumieges where they would find refuge and succor. The original painting was put on display at the Salon of 1880 and was immediately purchased by NSW. The Rouen version was a copy by the artist (with changes – did he consider them improvements?) as he appears to have wanted a version for himself. It was purchased from his estate after his death.
This is my understanding of what I have read and translated during the past hour or so of research – I would be happy for details to be filled in / corrections to be made where needed.
This has been an interesting exercise.