Jean Pillement (French, 1727–1808)
Pastel on gessoed canvas
24 3/4 x 36 in. (62.9 x 91.4 cm)
Gift of Martin Birnbaum, 1956 (56.7)
Jean Pillement was born in Lyon, where his father was a designer at La Grande Fabrique, the prestigious royal silk manufactory. It was here that Pillement was, in his own words, "brought up in draftsmanship." He completed his training in Paris at the Gobelins tapestry manufactory before departing for Madrid in 1745, the start of an itinerancy that would characterize his entire career. Pillement painted landscapes, genre scenes, chinoiserie designs, and decorations in Spain, Portugal, France, and London, where he also exhibited in the 1760s. By 1763, he was drawing-master to the imperial family in Vienna. In 1767, Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski (1732–1798), king of Poland, appointed him his personal painter, as Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) would in 1778. Pillement also prepared One Hundred and Thirty Figures and Ornaments and Some Flowers in the Chinese Style (1767), a collection of prints of the decorative, genre, and landscape subjects for which he is best known.
A Shipwreck during a Tempest typifies the work of Pillement's late years in Portugal, between 1780 and 1786. The despairing figure with the outstretched arms is the central focus of his composition and a stock image from his marine landscapes. Although this pastel has no known pendant, Pillement often painted his marine views (both oils and pastels) in pairs. The first, typically of a seaport, would depict tranquil, benevolent nature; its pendant, by contrast, showed violent storms and shipwrecks. A Shipwreck during a Tempest dramatically illustrates the power of nature, evoking sympathy for the human figures caught up in it.