Unknown in the literature until now, our painting is the preparatory sketch for the last great history painting, painted in 1826, by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Electra Receiving the Ashes of her Brother Orestes or Electra, Orestes and Pylades (Worcester Art Museum, 1991.47; fig. 1). The painting was commissioned by the duc Adrien de Montmorency-Laval (1768–1837), French ambassador in Rome. Maria Teresa Caracciolo elaborates on the circumstances of this commission, the identification of which is made possible by two sketches which include the principal figures of the Worcester Art Museum’s painting. One of these is in a private collection and bears the inscription Monsieur Le […] Voilà en augmentation du…/Lettre les trois figures de l’esquisse de M. L’Ambassadeur / Agréez mon respect [?] Wicar, and the other is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lille and is annotated on the reverse: Wicar, A Mr. Le Duc de Laval de Montmorency ambassadeur de France à Rome en 1828 (1855).
The subject is taken from the tragedy of Sophocles and depicts Electra, the grieving daughter of the late King Agamemnon, as she receives the urn which she believes contains the ashes of her brother Orestes. The messengers who deliver the urn turn out to be Orestes himself and his friend Pylades, who have used this subterfuge to enter the palace and seek revenge for the death of Agamemnon at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Orestes eventually reveals his true identity to his sister and, with the help of Pylades, murders Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, who are depicted by Wicar in the background of the final painting.
In 1826, the ambassador who commissioned the painting lost his first cousin, Mathieu, duc de Montmorency, whom he had regarded as a brother since his earliest youth. Royalist and ultra-Catholic, Mathieu was the guardian of the Duke of Bordeaux and a prominent figure under the Restoration. Mathieu’s sudden death had a profound impact on his two friends, and Wicar conveys this sense of grief in his depiction of the three figures gathered around the urn in the Sophoclean scene. The artist made other preparatory studies in addition to those in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille (fig. 2), notably in the Accademia di Belle Arti Perugia (668) and others from an album by Wicar (private collection).
Wicar had trained in the studio of David starting in 1781 and accompanied him to Rome in 1784 when he went there to paint The Oath of the Horatii. Wicar spent years in Italy, dividing his time between Florence and Rome, publishing a volume on the contents of the Pitti Palace. He was an active participant in Paris during the Revolution and was briefly imprisoned following the downfall of Robespierre. However, he returned to Italy in the entourage of Napoleon for whom he selected masterpieces as trophies for the Louvre following the Treaty of Tolentino. Wicar moved to Rome in 1800, where he lived until his death in 1834. His most important legacy, in addition to the art he requisitioned from Italy for the French state, was his extraordinary collection of Italian drawings, many of which are now in the museum in Lille.❖