Trained in Paris in the studio of Joseph-Marie Vien, Saint-Ours set up in Rome in 1780. In 1792 he returned to Geneva to fight for his ideas of social justice and democracy in his homeland, which was in great political turmoil at the time. Up to 1806, he devoted a good number of drawings and five paintings to earthquakes. The subject was inspired by the catastrophe that destroyed the Sicilian town of Messina in 1783, causing tens of thousands of deaths. This tragedy revived memories of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which had inspired the Enlightenment philosophers to formulate ideas about human destiny emancipated from the notion of catastrophe as a divine punishment. Beyond this fascination with natural disasters, which was very much of his time, Saint-Ours, in choosing this theme, also sought to convey the destabilising effects of a period roiled by revolutionary upheaval.
Visual means here work to strengthen the feeling of insecurity that is the main point of the scene. The lighting underscores the isolation of the family taking refuge on a last islet of safety, surrounded by corpses, ruins, chariots and ash clouds. The powerful movement of flight suggested by the diagonal running across the composition seems to be stopped by the postures of the kneeling mother and the man looking to the rear. The handling shows the neoclassical rejection of the impulsive modelling and shimmering highlights typical of rococo painting. Saint-Ours uses firm contours that emphasise purity of line, and areas of bold colour that contrast with the dark hues. The primary colours (blue, red and yellow) and the white are used exclusively for the central group and symbolise life; they struggle against the blacks surrounding them. The farewell to a certain kind of civilisation and the shifting ground on which the future is to be built – that is what this work excels at conveying.
Sylvie Wuhrmann and Rémi Cariel, Visions du déluge, de la Renaissance au XIXe siècle, exh. cat. Dijon, Musée Magnin, Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2006: n. 80.
Sylvie Wuhrmann, ‘Le tremblement de terre entre peinture de genre et peinture d’histoire. De Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours à Léopold Robert,’ Art + Architecture en Suisse, n. 4, 1994: 330-339.
Anne de Herdt, ‘Le tremblement de terre de Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours dans sa version romantique,’ Genava, vol. XXXVIII, 1990: 189-196.