What are you looking at?
Evariste Luminais, The Sons of Clovis II (1880) in the Art Gallery of New South Wales
This is, without doubt, the strangest painting in the New South Wales Art Gallery (Fig. 1). Painted on a heroic scale, with the figures almost life-size, it is impossible to ignore and while I am looking pools of people gather around it. Two boys float feet-first towards us on what looks like a luxuriously upholstered bed but which is actually a raft. The fine silk textiles and their embroidered garments contrast with the rough-hewn planks of wood beneath them. In the background fine tongues of land project into an expanse of water, which is a dull muddy yellow, the colour of the Yarra river. The raft drifts on an angle to the picture plane, so that the first thing we notice are the magnified feet of the boy on the left, which thrust into our space (Fig. 2). They are covered in thick white cloth, held in place with leather strapping. On his left foot the cloth has fallen away to reveal his big toe. The creamy white of the bandages forms the brightest part of the painting. The strangeness of the scene grows the more you look at it. The only thing moving is the drifting raft, the ruffled surface of the water, and the rich embroidered cloth covering the boys, which has slipped and trails unnoticed in the water (Fig. 3). The boys are remarkable for their stillness, and the dark-haired boy on the right, with his glassily bulging eyes and beaky nose has his hands resting on his chest and looks already dead (Fig. 4). The other blonde boy is alive as his eyes are open and his drawn features are picked out by the pale sunlight. He looks out at us with an expression of such abject despair, pain and shock, his face showing the marks of his ordeal, with deep shadows under his eyes and a pitiful down-turned mouth.
So what is the subject of this strange floating sickbed that drifts towards us? I had always thought that these figures were invalids, or perhaps lepers, or victims of a epidemic, set adrift to prevent contagion, and left to die under a leaden sky. But the story behind the painting is more sinister and gothic than this. These are the sons of Clovis II, who rebelled against their father, and as a punishment were hamstrung by their mother. What we see is the tragic aftermath of this mutilation. The boys are lying because they cannot stand, and in this crippled state were set adrift on the Seine. The gold, jewel-studded shrine hanging on the front of the raft, and the rich textiles all hint at their royal status, while the deep red of the high cushions behind their head symbolize blood and the violence done to them.
© Lisa Beaven 2010
Painting details: Oil on canvas, no dimensions given, bought by the New South Wales Gallery in 1886.