Art In History Art Blog
In his comment on my post about Rubens, Zander reminded me of his influence on Delacroix, and I decided I should take him up next. Then I realized that before looking at his work, I should set the scene with the generation that preceeded him. Because the fact is, no matter how interesting the work of any one artist at this period may be, the art scene in France as a whole is much more fascinating.
I am leading off with the "Oath of the Horatii" by Jacques-Louis David, the "painter of the revolution". Since the work seems "mainstream" and "old-fashioned" to our eyes, it takes a huge effort of empathy to understand what it meant at the time: it was a bombshell!
First we need to realize that the classicism we see in the David was long gone in French art. By this time it had morphed into a frothy confection called the Rococo, with lighthearted erotic fantasy as its staple; an example is Fragonard's "The Swing", where the main story seems to be a peek under the dress by an ogling courtier. This was the art of the French Court, and was symptomatic of their utter detachment from reality. Comparing the styles, we can get an inkling of how stunning was the simplicity and reality of David's work.
The "Oath" was actually commissioned by the King, intended to remind Frenchmen of their duty to the Crown. Subjects from classical history and mythology must always be seen as a comment on the present, chosen for their moral message. We can see this in the "Sabine Women", a later moment in the revolution where David is calling for reconciliation. In the Horatii, David - a revolutionary - created a painting which was read by his countrymen as a call to action for France, against the crown. It was described at the time as having more impact than all the revolutionary tracts put together!
The classical story is very telling. It is from early republican Rome, not later Imperial Rome. The Horatii, three brothers, are chosen as the champions of Rome to fight against the Curatii, champions of Alba, to determine supremacy of one city over the other. The women slumped in grief includes their sister, whose husband is the eldest of the Curatii. The lesson: country over family.
It is fascinating to see the evolution of David's style as the revolution takes its course. The "Death of Marat", another revolutionary call to arms, has now shed the clothing of classical reference, and uses the same theatrical lighting to illuminate a real scene. The revolutionary Marat is in his bath (he had an incurable skin disease) murdered by Charlotte Cordeille, as he writes his last testament to the people of France. He willed to them his courage and his resolve.
A decade later David produced his "Coronation of Josephine", a massive work of which I am showing only the center portion. David was one of many Frenchmen who saw Napoleon as the legitimate inheritor of the revolution; his origianl sketches show Napoleon crowning himself, but the final version shows the less controversial moment where he crowns the empress. This is Rubensian in its scale and magnificence, though still neoclassical in its detail. For the figures David not only did portraits for every head, but did full nude studies of every figure.
With the success of the revolution, David's Neoclassical style quickly became the establishment standard. It swept not only art but style and fashion. In his portrait of Mme. Recamier, we see the Roman style in dress, in coiffeur and in furniture, displayed almost as a model of correct taste. In other words, France was ripe for the next revolution!
Here I am comparing David's "Napoleon crossing the Alps" with a "Mounted Hussar" by Gericault. We can see immediately that Gericault is harking back again to Rubens, in rebellion against the strictures of neo-classicism. He was the first representative of the "colorist" opposition to the French academy, which had enshrined neo-classicism as the only correct style.
I will end with a look at Gericault's great masterpiece, "The Raft of the Medusa". Ironically, his approach in this work was more academic than in the "Hussar", with careful studies of the figures. But the subject is a direct attack on the government.
The Medusa was a French naval vessel which foundered in a storm, while carrying hundreds of civilian refugees home. When the ship sank, there was no room in the ship's boats for the refugees, so a raft was built, to be towed to land by the sailors in the boats. During the night, the sailors cut loose the raft, and left the refugees to their fate. When they were eventually saved and returned to tell the story, it was a major scandal for the government.
According to Gericault, he is showing NOT the moment when the survivors are saved, but a moment the day before when they spot a ship, which passes without seeing them. It is utterly Romantic (with a capital "R"), dispair, followed by hope, followed by utter anguish. The younger Delacroix describes in his diaries having seen the work on the easel in Gericault's studio, and running blindly through the streets of Paris in a frenzy of excitement. Delacroix, whom I will look at in my next post, was the great French Romantic, and perhaps the finest exemplar of the "Colorist" opposition.