Risamburgh Family / Chinard
Allegorical Portrait of the van Risamburgh Family
Joseph Chinard
French, 1790
H: 44 1/4 in.
Questions for Teaching

• Who do you think the female figure is? What is she doing? What idea might she represent? (The female figure is the mother of the boy and wife of the man depicted on the medallion at her feet. She is dressed in the costume of Minerva, Roman goddess of war and wisdom. She protects her son with one hand, shielding his naked body, while she points to her husband's portrait with the other. She represents strength and wisdom, but also duty, loyalty, and virtue.)

• The artist has transformed marble into a representation of many different materials and textures. Find and describe some of the areas where the marble looks like something other than stone. (Soft thick clouds, smooth skin, crisp cloth, fluffy feathers, wavy hair.)

• Where is the father in this unique family portrait? (His portrait can be seen in relief on the medallion at the woman's feet.)

• In art-historical tradition, medallion portraits were often used to signify that someone was no longer alive. However, we know that Monsieur van Risamburgh was alive when this portrait was made. What other meaning could the medallion portrait have in this work? (Perhaps that he was absent from the family. The many attributes (or symbols) of war suggest that he might have been fighting for his country.)

• Why do you think the artist chose to portray the son without clothes and sleeping in this sculpture? (The son is vulnerable, as he is unprotected by clothing, but has complete faith in the strength of his mother and so can sleep soundly.)

• How did the artist include the larger context of the war that was taking place at the time the sculpture was made? (Through the many attributes of war that can be found in this work, including the pile of weapons; the sword on which the son rests; the reference to Minerva, with her helmet and shield; and the Roman soldier's helmet above the medallion.)

Background Information

Carved from a single block of white marble, this commemorative portrait makes a powerful statement about family and the role of the mother as protector in the face of an absent father. Monsieur van Risamburgh commissioned Joseph Chinard to create this sculpture for likely display in a domestic interior.

Madame van Risamburgh, dressed as Minerva, raises her shield and drapery as a canopy over her slumbering son as she stands on a cluster of billowing clouds. Her naked child is improbably perched on a pile of military equipment and holds in his right hand a sword or dagger that is clearly too large for him. Monsieur van Risamburgh, a prominent Lyon merchant, is represented in a medallion portrait on a shield. The medallion rests between the two figures and is topped with an ancient Roman-style plumed helmet. The medallion format was traditionally used for Baroque tomb monuments. Chinard repurposed this format to show that, although still living, Monsieur van Risamburgh is absent from the family.

Through the use of allegory, Chinard suggested that Madame van Risamburgh was protecting her vulnerable son from current civil and military unrest while her husband was away, possibly engaged in military or civic duties. A popular Neoclassical sculptor, Chinard drew on ancient mythology and used classical forms but imbued the work with a contemporary emotional feeling, celebrating family and the matriarch as the source of domestic stability.

About the Artist
Joseph Chinard, 1756–1813

In a biography of Joseph Chinard, read to the Academy of Lyon a year after his death in 1813, a local historian reported that the French sculptor's first attempts at art were confections made for the local bakers and candy makers in Lyon. Whether this legend is true or not, it speaks to the qualities of intimacy, delicacy, and refinement for which Chinard's work was so admired. He received his first formal training at a free, government-supported art school in Lyon and later studied in a workshop. From 1784 to 1787 he worked in Rome, sending back to Lyon copies of antique works to fulfill commissions from the local bourgeoisie and nobility. During this period he won the first prize in sculpture from the Italian Accademia di San Luca, a rare accomplishment for a foreigner.

Despite several run-ins with Italian Church authorities for seemingly inappropriate and subversive French Revolutionary imagery in his sculptures, Chinard continued to travel back and forth between Lyon and Italy. Although one of the most popular French Empire sculptors and one of the favorite sculptors of Emperor Napoleon's family, Chinard made only three trips to Paris. He preferred living a provincial life. Nevertheless, his patrons appreciated the sophisticated elegance and charm he gave to his Neoclassical portrait busts and allegorical groups.