Léon Cogniet was born in Paris towards the end of the 18th century. He was very much appreciated both as a Romantic portrait artist and as a painter of splendid historical works, as well as for his lithographies.
He enrolled at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1812, studying under Pierre-Narcisse Guérin alongside Géricault and Delacroix, while at the same time frequenting the workshop of Jean-Victor Bertin. He embarked on his artistic career in 1816, showing a picture (generally considered a failure) entitled Hedone Refuses To Help Paris; but the following year, in 1817, he won the Prix de Rome with his painting entitled Helen Rescued by Castor and Pollux and began to show at the Salon that same year, enjoying considerable success. These were the years in which his career went from strength to strength, leading to his receiving various awards and to an invitation to the Académie de France in Rome, which he attended from 1817 to 1822 and where he had the opportunity to pursue his studies under Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes.
Back in Paris, he painted a cycle of frescoes depicting scenes from the Life of St. Stephen for the church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs in 1827, and Napoleon’s Expedition to Egypt on one of the ceilings in the Louvre between 1833 and 1835.
He reached the peak of his career in 1843 with his masterpiece entitled Tintoretto Painting the Portrait of His Dead Daughter, after which he began to focus exclusively on painting portraits and on teaching. He initially taught drawing at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and at the École Polytechnique, but around the middle of the century he was appointed professor at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts where he began to train numerous generations of artists.
This vibrant and romantic small painting depicts the Girandola at Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, a magnificent firework display held to mark the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, founders of the Catholic Church and the city’s patron saints, on 29 June. Cogniet’s mastery in conveying the atmosphere of the moment is superb, thanks also to his decision to adopt a line of vision emulating that of a group of spectators in the foreground. He skilfully paints with brushwork at times densely textural, alternating delicate nuance with more dynamic and energetic colours and bathing the whole scene in the mood of a festive Roman night. The elegance of Cogniet’s handling of light allows us to distinguish the picture’s compositional components; despite the nighttime setting, we are immersed in a Romantic luminosity highlighted by the fireworks of the Girandola.
Cogniet died in Paris at the age of 86. His mortal remains now rest in the city’s famous Père Lachaise cemetery.