Sue Young Histories

Guillaume Guillon Lethiere 1760 – 1832

March 26, 2009

Guillaume Guillon Lethiere 1760 – 1832 was a French neoclassical painter, whose radical Neo Classical paintings were influential in the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Guillaume Guillon Lethiere was the art teacher of Melanie Hahnemann, as Lethiere was a friend of Melanie Hahnemann’s father, and Guillaume Guillon Lethiere became her adoptive father. When Guillaume Guillon Lethiere died, Melanie Hahnemann buried him and adopted his grandchildren.

Samuel Hahnemann was buried in the Lethiere family vault, next to Guillaume Guillon Lethiere and his relatives. Charles Lethiere was one of grandchildren whom the painter had entrusted to Melanie Hahnemann’s care in his will, alongside Amalie and Leopold Lethiere. Charles Lethiere had lived with Melanie Hahnemann since he was 16 years old, and he assisted her in her practice until she died, and took over the running of the Hahnemann’s practice in Paris.

Guillaume Guillon Lethiere’s grandson **Charles Lethiere **became a famous homeopath.

Biographical material on Guillaume Guillon Lethiere always mention he was the illegitimate son of a colonial official from the French West Indian island of Guadalupe. However, it was not until 1977, in a five volume work on Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (who had been a student of his) that Guillaume Guillon Lethiere’s mother was described as a mulatto.

Judging from the portraits Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres did of him, however, she was probably more Caucasian - no doubt, a quadroon like so many of the mixed blood women of the French colonies whether here in New Orleans or des Antilles, whose sway over their white masters had almost become legendary by the end of the 18th century. On the other hand, it is quite possible that, even if she were as black as claimed, he simply did not inherit any of his mother’s African features - except the curliness of his hair and perhaps a shorter distance between eye and brow than is usually perceptible in white males.

One reason why he was not brought to the attention of the African American community two decades ago is more than likely due to the fact that the biography of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres by Hans Naef in which this information appears was published in German. What makes Lethiere so relevant to us in this still racially troubled society of ours today is the fact that - as easy as it would have been for him to pass for white - he never did.

Even the style of painting which he so tenaciously adhered to was proof of his lifelong commitment to social and racial justice. Now referred to as Neo classical, it was a school of painting which, through its illustration of the Roman histories, attempted to create politically-loaded allegories on the subject of civil and national duties.

From about the time of Lethiere’s arrival in France in 1774, artists had begun to uses this idiom to propagandize ideas growing around the concept of democracy which would eventually break out as the French Revolution…

Lethiere was thus identified with sedition and this resulted, three years after his entry into France and his paintings were exhibited, an edict, banning Negroes, mulattos, and other people of colour from entry into France…

It would seem that in The Bonaparte Family, sides had been taken as well. For when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power he kept Jacques Louis David on as the state’s adjudicator of the arts while his brother, Lucien Bonaparte, took Lethiere into his patronage. As artistic advisor to Lucien Bonaparte, Lethiere collected a great many of the Spanish paintings in the Louvre today. No doubt the high point of his career, however, were the years he spent as Director of the Academie de France in Rome.

Even how this came about should serve as a measure of the tendresse the country as a whole evidently felt for him. Because of some remark or other made about his mustache by one of a group of officers in the Imperial army trying to strike up a conversation with him in a cafe, the hot tempered Lethiere who had no sympathy for Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions started a fight in which one of the men was killed and another wounded.

Instead of being tried for a capital offense, the government ordered his studio closed. With no other options available to him, Lethiere and his family were forced to traipse through Europe like gypsies until, thanks to the intervention of his patron, Lucien Bonaparte, he was appointed to this rather prestigious position… Whatever the cause of the king’s initial antipathy to Letheire, he finally gave in to the wishes of the Institute a couple of years later and not only confirmed the artist’s election to that august body but assented to his induction as a Knight of the Legion of Honour, as well…

Of interest:

Guillaume Guillon Lethiere’s grandson Charles Lethiere was a ward of Melanie Hahnemann, a trained pharmacist, and an assistant of Samuel Hahnemann. Charles Lethiere lived with Melanie Hahnemann and assisted her in her practice until she died. **Charles Lethiere **took over the running of the Hahnemann’s practice in Paris, and he became a famous homeopath:

A distinguished homeopathic doctor, Doctor Lethier, prodigious in his indefatigable activity and the most laudable selflessness, has for more than fifteen years, administered to the needs of the most indigent among the sick. Informed of his devotion and his perseverance, the Holy See of Rome has bestowed on Doctor Lethier, the Cross of the Knights of Saint Gregory the Great. This award is certainly well deserved.” Indeed, in a tribute to Doctor Lethiere published by another of the journals that reported this award, his grandfather was not only commemorated for his talent as an artist but, even more importantly, given the context in which he was referred to, Guillaume Guillon, dit Le Thiers, was honoured as a man who had “distinguished himself for his private virtues.”