‘Saint Joseph père nourricier du Christ’, 19th century painting by Benjamin Constant (1845-1902)

Eglise Saint-Martin
Rue du Général de Gaulle



A master painting in the Saint-Martin church of Villers sur mer
Hung on the west wall of the south transept, this painting stands alongside the great glass dedicated to Saint Joseph ended in 1878.

The artist, François-Jean-Baptiste-Benjamin Constant, called Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902), went several times to Normandy, but it is not known whether he has visited Villers-sur-Mer. He has studied in Toulouse since 1860, then entered the École des Beaux-Arts of Paris in 1867 as pupil of Cabanel. After a failure at the Grand Prix de Rome, he made his debut at the Salon in 1869. He developed an Orientalist vein after a journey to Morocco in 1871-1872 and turned into one of the heirs of Delacroix for his subjects (Interior of a Harem, Lille museum, 1878), but also for his colours and his amazing paintbrush (Arabian Night). His several Oriental scenes made him successful; some large paintings were bought by the French government.

During the 1880s, Benjamin-Constant became a renowned portraitist and a painter-decorator for great buildings such as the Hôtel de Ville, the Opéra-Comique and the Sorbonne, in Paris. He has gained several acknowledgements: professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1883, succeeding to this master Cabanel, member of the Institute in 1893, Grand Prix of the Exposition Universelle of 1900; knight of the Legion of Honour since 1878. He became officer, then commander in 1901.

Less known than the famous feminine characters of Judith or Herodias, the religious scenes of the New Testament are quite rare in the production of Benjamin-Constant (Christ in the Tomb exhibited at the Salon of 1882; Resurrection of Lazarus; Salome with the Head of John the Baptist) and characterized by a dark atmosphere. The scene is characterized here by pastel colours, mainly blue and rose, leading to a relaxed atmosphere. The pattern of characters sitting on a terrace with a landscape on the background ensured the success of the painter in several Orientalist works made around the 1880 (Evening on the terrace, Salon de 1879, musée de Montréal). Unlike these works, the vertical construction of the painting gives to the house on the first plan a completely different scope. It has an imposing white wall and provided Jesus and his foster father with a height, a status that is not just that of a mere mortal. Going beyond orientalism with no geographic realism through mountains reminding the Moroccan Atlas mountains instead of the hills of Nazareth, Benjamin-Constant, expressing religious faith, offers a recollection representation. He reiterates the iconography of Saint Joseph, claimed patron saint of the Universal church by Pope Pius IX in 1870, without representing any anecdotes. Saint Joseph is represented old with a handsaw, feature of the carpenter, and the fleur-de-lys, symbol of his virgin marriage, at his feet. He does not hold Jesus’s hand, but, sitting close to him, shares with him the same horizon, as they have shared for many years the humble profession of carpenter. The light and thick touch of Benjamin-Constant provides through this working complicity, this common destiny, a strong image: one of the best orientalistic images of religious painting.


Emmanuel Luis, heritage conservation curator, researcher and responsible for the publications of the General inventory of cultural heritage. Basse-Normandie Region Divine beauty! Paintings of Basse-Normandie churches, 16-20th centuries / under the direction of Emmanuel Luis; work made by the Basse-Normandie region, with the collaboration of Calvados, Manche and Orne Departments. Lyon: Lieux Dits, DL 2015.-1 vol. (408p.) : black and coloured ill., cov. Coloured ill. ; 27cm.