Viktor Karlovich Shtember (Shtemberg) (Russian 1863-1921)
The Temptation of St. Hilarion signed in Cyrillic and dated '1894' oil on canvas 213.5 x 152.7cm (84 1/16 x 60 1/8in). unframed
PROVENANCE: Christie's King Street, London, The Donald Munson Collection, 4th May 1995 Purchased from the above by the present owner
The influence of his tutor in Paris, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, is apparent in Shtember's portrayal of nudity in The Temptation of St. Hilarion. As with the majority of Bouguereau's nudes, such as Venus in The Birth of Venus, 1879, the naked beauty stands contraposto, one hand in her luxuriant hair, both voluptuous and virginal she tries to lure the hermitic Hilarion out of his cell.
In the offered painting, St. Hilarion is shown prostrate, zealously reading the scripture before him as if to deny the apparition at his shoulder. The voluptuous, luminous flesh of the naked beauty is juxtaposed with the earthy colour scheme and the human skull, the memento mori, which Hilarion touches, trying to root himself to his mortality. Shtember skilfully depicts the apparition of the girl as a very real, immediate and human presence, apparently more real than the Saint himself. In comparison, Dominique Papety's painting [Wallace Collection] of the same subject painted fifty years earlier, shows Hilarion making a more exaggerated gesture of resistance, shunning the embodiment of temptation (a naked girl with a table laden with rich food) with his hands outstretched.
St. Jerome (c.345-420) wrote about the life of St. Hilarion (291-371) in order to encourage devotees of the ascetic life he led. Described as a thin young man inspired by the ways of St. Anthony in Egypt, Hilarion began his anchoritic existence at the age of fifteen at the site of modern-day Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip.
Throughout his nomadic days Hilarion never washed his clothing, wearing just a coarse linen shirt and a cloak of skins given to him by St. Anthony. It would appear that he sought to deal with the carnal thoughts that arose by modifying his diet to such extremes that he suffered from malnutrition, eating only dried figs, roots and the juice of herbs. In spite of observing such modest ways, St. Jerome notes that Hilarion was still beset with troublesome embodiments: "So many were his temptations and so various the snares of demons night and day, that if I wished to relate them, a volume would not suffice. How often when he lay down did naked women appear to him, how often sumptuous feasts when he was hungry!" [Jerome, The Life of St Hilarion, 7]
Hilarion's fame increased as he began to perform miracles: curing a woman of sterility, making the blind see again, the paralysed walk and, remarkably, taming a mad Bactrian camel. With this renown came visitors seeking his cures and observing his righteous life and in time, a monastery grew up around his cell causing Hilarion to seek solitude elsewhere and he fled, eventually dying in Cyprus.