Guillaume Guillon Lethière (1760–1832)

Clark Art acquires masterpiece shown during French Revolution

Lethière's 'Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death' spent more than 200 years in private hands


WILLIAMSTOWN — The Clark Art Institute is celebrating the acquisition of an 18th century masterpiece painting, a scene of a Roman beheading that helped to inspire the French Republic.

“Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death” is regarded as an important early work by neoclassical French artist Guillaume Guillon Lethière (1760–1832). It depicts the beheading of a son of Lucius Junius Brutus who led the 509 BC revolt to overthrow the last king of Rome and establish the Roman Republic. The son was a conspirator attempting to restore the Roman monarchy.

Lethière finished the painting in 1788 while he was at the French Academy in Rome. The painting has been privately held for more than 200 years, according to the Clark.

The Clark announced the acquisition today in a news release.

Olivier Meslay, the director of the Clark, called this addition to the permanent collection “a transformative moment.”

“‘Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death’ is important both for its masterful execution and for its place in the canon of world and art history,” Meslay said. “It is an iconic and prophetic painting that struck a chord with the French public at a moment when history’s role in understanding and interpreting contemporary issues was perhaps never more instructive or imperative.”

The purchase came at auction, and was approved by the Clark’s board of trustees in accordance with its acquisitions policies, a Clark news release stated. It was funded through a special art acquisition fund, the Clark said. The price was not disclosed.

Lethière is “widely recognized as the first major French artist of African descent,” according to Henry Louis Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

“His celebration as an artist of great skill and significance is long past due,” Gates said.

Esther Bell, the Clark’s Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, called “Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death” an “icon of French painting and French history.”

“Lethière likely could not have imagined it at the time, but his painting would be publicly exhibited during the height of the French Revolution, and would inspire his contemporaries to contemplate the democratic principles at the heart of their tumultuous society,” Bell said.

Bell led the Clark’s effort in pursuing the acquisition of the Lethière painting and works on paper related to the artwork. The objects will undergo examination and conservation before going on view in the Clark’s galleries later this year.

The Clark, located at 225 South St. in Williamstown, is an art museum and research center that holds an extensive collection of European and American paintings and sculpture, among other artworks.


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