I encountered this painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the spring of 1984.
I loved the bursts of vivid color, the line of the bowing noblemen’s backs, the dappled sunlight and, perhaps most of all, that such deference was being paid to such a quiet, humble figure: a monk with his face buried in a book. It was some time later that I learned the painting’s back story.
The painting depicts the inside of the palace of Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII. Richelieu’s chief advisor, Francois Leclerc du Tremblay, is the man in the gray Capuchin robes: he is the ‘eminence grise’ (the gray cardinal). Writing in The Boston Globe, Sebastian Smee noted that Leclerc was “[a] religious zealot intent on launching a new crusade against the Turks, Richelieu’s right-hand man, his confidante, his “consolation and support”….Although deeply involved in affairs of state, Leclerc lived an austere life and never neglected his monastic duties. So Gérôme’s picture, with its elaborately bowing courtiers, is a joke about sycophancy. Given Leclerc’s absorption in his book, it conveys, if just a little heavy-handedly, the obliviousness, the chutzpah, the outrageous impunity of the truly powerful.”
The term ‘eminence grise’ thus applies to someone who wields considerable power, but who does so behind the scenes.
So the friar was much more than met the eye.