Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Nudity a la Grecque and the Female Gaze

Jacques-Louis David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799
(Musee du Louvre)
Museums are full of works of art trying to tell us something vital about a particular period of time if we only stop to listen. Unfortunately a lot can be lost in translation since most discourse depends on the perspective of a particular scholar or a school of thought.  Also, changing sentiments can turn the iconography of a significant masterpiece into disconnected arguments.   I feel Jacques-Louis David's The Intervention of the Sabine Women hanging at the Louvre museum, is one of those paintings that merits further investigation.


Nicolas Poussin,  The Abduction of the Sabine Women,1633-34
(Metropolitan Museum of Art) 
David painted this monumental work while he was imprisoned after the death of Robespierre and the end of the reign of terror.  It  is always described as a reconciliation painting where love prevails over conflict,  David's call to find a way to rebuild after the destruction of the revolution and its aftermath.  Influenced by Nicolas Poussin's Rape of the Sabine Women, David depicts the end of the legendary  story from Roman history. Romans who have no women abduct the females from Sabine and make them their wives; years later the Sabine men come back to claim their female kin but in the midst of battle they are stopped by the intervention of the Sabine women who have become the wives and mothers of Romans, refusing to let their fathers and husbands kill each other.


David exhibited this painting in his studio where a mirror was placed on the opposite wall, giving the viewer the full effect of being in the midst of the battle. David provided a brochure for his audience that explained and defended his motivations and reasoning for the controversial tableau.  He also did something that was unprecedented til this time in France, he charged an admission fee.  It was deemed a box office success and became one of the most talked about paintings of his career.  The reason for the drama was caused mostly because of the state of dress or undress of the protagonists.  Some critics opposed the depiction of Roman soldiers fighting in the nude on the grounds of historical inaccuracy, others were outraged at the idea of the male nude displayed for all the world to see.   David proclaimed his choice as artistic license.


I recently discovered a fascinating article in the Art Bulletin by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, Nudity a la Grecque in 1799, that sheds an intriguing light on this controversial painting.Grisby explains: 


"Scholarship  has for the most  part treated  the novel conjunction of  naked  male  bodies  and  newly central  female  protagonists as separate issues.
While  the  nudes  have been  described in  terms of  David's stylistic  development toward  a greater classical Greek  purism, the  Sabine  women's  prominence  has been 

interpreted as affording a familial  basis for the reconciliation  of  a  divided  and  warring  post-Revolutionary  France.  Aesthetic  priorities  (male  nudity) and  narrative saliency (female  intervention)  have often  been  held  asunder."




As it turns out, the critics redefined David's protagonists in specifically contemporary French terms. For David's severe critics the male nudes were contemplated in terms of the modern man stripped bare humiliated before their valets or his body deformed, bent, branded from his vulgar cultural practices, particularly fashion.   Herosilia, on the other hand, in her Grecian white gown was likened to the real women of post-Revolutionary France parading around in diaphanous gowns.  According to Grisby, David  himself  was responsible for  such  a collapse of high art and ephemeral fashion. The fashionable French woman had been modeling herself on the female protagonists of David's  major  pre-Revolutionary paintings; by 1790's the classical white gown had become everyday attire. 

Louis-Leopold Boilly, No Agreement, 1797
On September 7, 1789, women had donned simple white gowns and donated their ornaments to the state in an attempt to distance themselves from compromising associations of femininity with aristocratic ostentation. 2 However, it is stated that the renunciation of excessive ornamentation turned into excess of exposed flesh.  Wise men of 18th century France tried to dissuade women from this immodest way of displaying themselves by trying to convince them of the hazards to their health as well as severely reprimanding them for not being a model for the impure female.  Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby explains: 



"Ultimately, however, the greatest threat posed by women's new exhibitionism was not their impact on other women but the power they inappropriately wielded over men. Roederer, for one, understood fashion to be the means by which women exercised their"empire."This was not merely a matter of women's seduction of men  but of their substitution of tyranny for republicanism. Ephemeral fashion is by definition antithetical to timeless law. The stakes were self-evident:  as long as women-immoral, fashionable, fickle, and tyrannical-are prominent, there  could  be  no (fraternal)  Republic."

The Intervention of the Sabine Women, brought forth a concept which was completely antithetical to anything that had been seen in art so far -  the female gaze.  We read and write about the male gaze on the female body quite extensively in regards to feminist theory but this is the first time I experienced the exact opposite.  I should mention here that Tatius, Herosilia's father, standing to her left, was posed full frontal, without the modesty of the scabbard he wears in the painting today ( David modified the painting in1808).  The two male protagonists Tatius and Romulus were standing fully nude to an audience of females as well as males.  Girgsby mentions fashionable women standing before the painting in David's studio imagining themselves in place of Herosilia and her cohorts, another annoyance the critics could lay at David's door.  Along with the female viewer observing Tatius in puris naturalibus there are also Herosilia and the old woman in the middle who is about to rip open her gown, both getting a full view of Romulus that is not afforded to anyone else. 

"Here  are  women  in  states  of  undress regarding a displayed  male  nude; indeed, they are the only figures gazing at Romulus's exposed body.  It is difficult, however, to assess precisely where they look and what they see there. They alone enjoy access to Romulus's other  side, that presence or absence lurking behind (or  eclipsed  by?) shield and sheath, buttocks. As viewers by proxy, they heighten the sense of suspense attending Romulus's withheld body. Their oddly uninformative but directed gazes, coupled with Tatius's frontality, compel the question:  Should the viewer project Tatius's anatomy onto the halfgod's front, assembling his body part by part (shoulder, arm, chest, hardened stomach, genitals) in an attempt to reconstruct the man as seen by the women?"



Finally, the painter was blamed for sacrificing the health of women,  promoting 'nudity' for the sake of garnering a greater purity of forms in his painting. Darcy Grigsby states, women were ultimately the malleable materials of the dictatorial artist.  I guess anything was preferable to women having a mind of their own and acting independently.  


These are the elements that places David's painting on a plane which is more than just another neoclassical work to be memorized and recognized for me.  An intriguing peek into the lives, and thoughts of people from 200 years ago, observed through a careful study of a canvas hanging on a museum wall, ours to be had for the price of an admission ticket... this is why I love Art History.




1  Grigsby, Darcy Grimaldo, Nudity a la Grecque in 1799, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 80, No. 2(Jun., 1998), pp 311-335
2  Ibid., 321

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Oath of the Horatii in 2011

Jacques Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784
(Musee du Louvre)
There always seems to be an interface that exists between art and politics that mirrors contemporary society with all its woes and grievances.  Although the world we live in today is quite different from 18th century France, after watching my brother, Cenk, make his announcement about the Wolf PAC, an organization aiming to stop the corporate takeover of our government, I was immediately reminded of Jacques-Louis David's famous painting of 1784, The Oath of the Horatii.  David's painting was a perfect projection of the volatile times France was living thorough and the proposed ideals of the philosophers of the Enlightenment.
The only ambiguity being in the form of royal patronage allowing this kind of propaganda to be displayed at the Salon.  But then again there are some examples that defy explanation when it comes to works of art that perforated the jurors to take their place on the walls of the Salon.  That being said, art and politics were always in some kind of cohesion in France whether it be the glorification of the Sun King, Louis XIV, Napoleonic Propaganda or as in the case of the Neoclassicism, the promotion of the republican ideals of ancient Rome.  The severe style of  neoclassicism obvious in The Oath of the Horatii, was a clear criticism of the  frivolous and amoral existence of the aristocracy which was mirrored in the Rococo works of art they so favored.  

 There are some very interesting parallels between the events leading up to the French Revolution and current state of affairs in  21st century America.  The situation we find ourselves in today, with the state of the economy, so many unemployed and in dire straits while big corporations and banks are in constant negotiations with the government over more rights and privileges,their CEO's adding insult to injury with their callous spending, recalls the18th century when the nobility, aristocracy and the clergy were immersed in excess while the rest of the country was starving to death.

A very clever friend said something the other day, that sums up the situation perfectly, I think. "Let them find jobs" is the new "Let them eat cake."  And here is my idea of the modern day The Oath of the Horatii...


Monday, October 17, 2011

Jacques- Louis David - A Cult of Great Men, 1793

Anatole Desvoge after David's Painting, Le Pelletier de Saint-Fargeau on his Death Bed, 1793


Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793
(Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium)

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Bara, 1793

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jacques- Louis David - the Oath of the Tennis Court

Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Tennis Court, 1791
(Versailles Palace)

Girodet - David's Students Rebelling Against his Teachings

Anne-Louis Girodet, The Sleep of Endymion, 1791
(Musee du Louvre)

Jacques- Louis David - The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons

Jacques-Louis David, The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, 1789
(Musee du Louvre)




David, Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, 1789 from Smarthistory Videos on Vimeo.

Jacques- Louis David - The Death of Socrates

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
From the Metropolitan Museum Catalog Entry: 

The great history painter and portraitist Jacques Louis David was the pupil of Joseph Marie Vien (1716–1809) and then in 1766 entered the school of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Having won the Prix de Rome in 1774, he traveled to Italy with Vien, an early exponent of neoclassicism and the newly appointed director of the French Academy there. In the Italian capital, David followed a traditional course, drawing from the antique, from models, and from nature, and studying contemporary and earlier painting. He made innumerable studies that attest to his passionate interest in antiquity and in the sculptural style of painting espoused in the seventeenth century by the Romanist Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), whose successor he became.

David returned to Paris in 1780 and the next year was received as a candidate member of the Académie, presenting Belisarius Begging Alms (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille), a history painting praised for its nobility of spirit. His reception piece, submitted in 1783, was the starkly heroic Grieving Andromache (École Nationale Supérieur des Beaux-Arts, Paris). Moralizing themes were immensely popular in the tumultuous years preceding the French revolution and many painters essayed The Death of Socrates, but none with the success of David. From its first exhibition at the Salon of 1787, the canvas has been admired for the clarity and force of its composition and the purity of its sentiment.

In 399 B.C., having been accused by the Athenian government of impiety and of corrupting young people with his teachings, the philosopher Socrates was tried, found guilty, and offered the choice of renouncing his beliefs or drinking the cup of hemlock. He died willingly for the principles he held dear. Here he gestures toward the cup, points toward the heavens, and discourses on the immortality of the soul. The picture, with its stoic theme, has been described as David’s most perfect neoclassical statement.

The artist consulted Plato’s "Phaedo" and a variety of sources including Diderot’s treatise on dramatic poetry and works by the poet André Chenier. The pose of Plato, the figure seated in profile at the foot of the bed (who was not actually present at the scene), was reportedly inspired by the English novelist Richardson. The printmaker and publisher John Boydell, writing to Sir Joshua Reynolds, called The Death of Socrates "the greatest effort of art since the Sistine Chapel and the stanze of Raphael," further observing that the painting "would have done honour to Athens at the time of Pericles." 

Jean-Germain Drouais - David's Favorite Student

Jean-Germain Drouais, Dying Athlete (Wounded Soldier)1785
(Musee du Louvre)

Jacques- Louis David - The Oath of the Horatii

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784
(Musee du Louvre)
Information from the Louvre Website

The Oath of the Horatii

In the 7th century BC, the three Horatii brothers, chosen by the Romans to defy the Curiatii, the champions of the town of Alba, are swearing to defeat their enemies or die. As they receive their weapons from their father, the women of the family are prostrate with suffering. This painting, a royal commission, was the manifesto for a new style, neoclassicism. Both the architecture of the room and the poses of the warriors are rigorously geometrical.

The Horatii and the Curiatii


In the 7th century BC, to put an end to the bloody war between Rome and Alba, both cities designated champions: the former chose the Horatii, the latter the Curiatii. The two families were linked by marriage. Jacques-Louis David depicts the Horatii swearing to defeat their enemies or die for their country. On the right, the grief-stricken women of the family already fear the worst: Sabina, the sister of the Curiatii and wife of the eldest of the Horatii, and Camilla, the sister of the Horatii and betrothed to one of the Curiatii, hang their heads in sorrow, while behind them, the mother of the Horatii hugs her grandchildren. 

A new moral painting


David chose this episode in Roman history for his first royal commission in 1784. A Prix de Rome laureate in 1776 and a member of the Académie, he wanted to launch his public career by creating a stir with a radically innovative picture. He forsook the amorous and mythological subject matter of his first teacher, Boucher, for the Roman historians and Corneille's classical play Horace (1640). David presents this episode as an example of patriotism and stoicism. In this respect, he is close to philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Diderot, who advocated the painting of moral subjects. David also wanted to give his painting an orginal form. He sought to emulate the grand style of his 17th-century forebears Poussin and Le Brun. David returned to Rome, where he could draw inspiration from ancient art for this painting. He presented the finished canvas in his studio in Rome in 1785, then at the Paris Salon later that year, on both occasions to acclaim. 

The manifesto of neoclassicism


The Oath of the Horatii is the first masterpiece of a new style breaking with the rococo style. The composition is broad and simple, with the life-size figures arranged in a frieze in the foreground, as on Roman sarcophagi and Greek vases. The figures are separated by large empty spaces in a stage-like area shown head-on. David emphasizes the room's geometry. The harsh, slanting light gives the figures their relief, and their contrasting characters are conveyed using different forms. He gives the men energetic bodies constructed out of straight lines and dresses them in vivid colors, while the women are all sinous curves and muted colors. The painting became the model throughout Europe for the new style of painting later known as neoclassicism.


 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Three Paintings from the Salon of 1787

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun, Marie-Antoinette and her Children, Salon of 1787
(Versailles)



Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Madame Adelaide of France, Salon of 1787
(Palace of Versailles)
These two enormous paintings hung side by side at the Salon of 1787.  While Adelaide Labille-Guiard's Portrait of the King's Aunt was lauded as a big success, Vigee-LeBrun's portrait of Marie-Antoinette was so severely criticized that it had to be taken down in two days.  People were complaining about everything they could find, even the gilded frame saying this was where all the money of France was going to.  Considering Jacques-Louis David's Death of Socrates was also hanging at the same Salon, it is very interesting to compare the different styles, and the social and political meanings being presented within the same year.


Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun - a Self Portrait within the Teachings of Rousseau

Elisabeth Louise VigeeLe-Brunn, Self Portrait with her Daughter, Julie,  1786
(Musee du Louvre)
It is facinating to see how an artist depicts one's self in portraits, when she has total control of the image she wants to present to the world.  Vigee-LeBrun's Self Portrait with her Daughter Julie is a very interesting form of self-representation especially for someone who is trying to establish her identity as a serious academician.  Instead of the usual way of representing herself at her easel with the tools of her trade, Vigee-Le-Brun portrays herself holding her daughter in a loving embrace, the mother and child, a perfect picture of contentment.

Paintings from the era before abstraction are great models to decipher the concerns and beliefs of the society for whose consumption the works were meant for.  This self-portrait can be seen as a  reflection of the enlightened ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau in 18th century France.  Rousseau's book Emile, a manual on the education of children and the nature of man, very clearly spelled out the best way to bring up a child as well as the roles befitting each gender.  He argued the best place for a woman was in the home, taking care of her children which was detrimental to the well-being of the child.   Rousseau, who was passionately against the concept of using wet-nurses, the common practice of the aristocracy, preached breastfeeding one's own child instead. According to Rousseau, the bond established between mother and child had social consequences affecting society as a whole.

Vigee-LeBrun, Marie-Antoinette and her Children,
1789
(Versailles)
Vigee-LeBrun must have composed this portrait with Rousseau's ideals in mind, showing to the world, that she was a nurturing mother as well as an enlightened artist.

The portrait Marie-Antoinette and her Children  is definitely recalling Rousseau's sentiments.   Marie-Antoinette who was dubbed "Madame Deficit" is no longer a queen in her regalia but a mother surrounded by her children and an empty crib, reminding her people of the child she had lost, a way to get French people's empathy.  Unfortunately, the country had been suffering for too long, people starving, with Marie-Antoinette the most easily identifiable target that even portraits such as these were not enough to save her from the Guillotine.

Adelaide Labille-Guilard - Self-Portrait with Two Pupils

Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Self Portrait with Two Pupils, 1785
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Adelaide Labille-Guilard first trained as a miniaturist and then learned the art of pastel painting from the preeminent Maurice Quentin de la Tour.   Not only was Labille-Guiard an exceptional artist but she was also an astute promoter. Before she was admitted as an academician she exhibited a series of pastel portraits of the most prominent academicians including the director at the Salon de la Correspondence (a commercial exhibition) which must have drawn enough attention for them to be familiar with her name.  She was accepted into the Academie in 1783 along with Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun.  She did not have a royal patron like Vigee-LeBrun nor did she have the privileges accorded a full academician of a salary.  She was training female artists at her studio but she also needed to attract wealthy patrons. 

 Labille-Guiard composed her portraits like large scale history paintings.  In this huge canvas we see an artist working at her easel as her two pupil look-on with admiration.  She engages the viewer by placing them in the position of the subject that she is painting.  Labille-Guiard has positioned herself in the middle of the canvas dressed as an aristocratic lady in a very fashionable, low-cut, satin dress, powdered hair and hat with bows and feathers.  According to Laura Auricchio, her pose and costume would have been instantly recognizable as the images from the published fashion plates that were so popular among the elite audience of fashionable women who were also very desirable patrons.1 She seems to be giving an all-encompassing impression of herself in this self-portrait. On the one hand she is dressed provocatively - her ample bosom is placed at the center of the painting and her little foot peeks under her dress - and on the other, she has two statues behind her one of her father and the other the Vestal Virgin - the former lending a sense of propriety and the latter a sense of  virtue.  She is claiming this is her studio and she is being watched over by her father and the Virgin.

She has shown an incredible mastery with her paints while depicting all the different light effects and textures. The intricacies of her dress are portrayed so realistically that the seams and even the wrinkles are very obvious.  The students in the back are standing in a contrapposto pose which is a concept developed in Classical sculpture and cannot be seen in Jacques-Louis David's figures until after the revolution. The  painting was a huge success.  She was considered to be one step away from a history painter.

Compared to her contemporary Vigee-LeBrun's soft rococo paintings Labille-Guiard's work was always considered more masculine.  Her work was so exceptional that some believed it was actually painted by her lover.  They could not conceive of such mastery in a female.  There were even pamphlets circulating at this time besmirching her name, containing lewd comments that she had to make a complaint about. But being the ever-resourceful woman that she was, she wrote to the wife of the director asking her to intervene on her behalf.  She went on to describe what a stain on her honor would do to her old lonely father.  With a little female intervention, action was taken to arrest and interrogate the printer and seize the pamphlets.2 Labille-Guiard had turned a negative situation into a positive with very influential allies on her side.

Madame Adailade of France, one of the daughters of Louis XIV, wanted to purchase the Self-Portrait with two Pupils but Labille-Guiard would not sell it and instead painted a portrait of the Princess of France in a very similar style as her own.  Mademe Adailade and her sisters became Labille-Guiard's major patrons and since she associated herself with the generation that was previous to the present ruler, she was not targeted by the Revolutionaries. She even painted a portrait of Maximilien Robespierre.

Jacques-Louis David,
The Oath of the Horatii, 1785
(Musee du Louvre)
Unfortunately, over the years, Labille-Guiard was not as widely recognized as her contemporary Vigee-LeBrun who made the cover of a current Survey of Art book while her name doesn't even come up in the index section.  I think this talented artist as well as shrewd businesswoman deserves to be recognized as a painter of the top caliber not just a female portraitist, afterall she risked the wrath of a society who firmly believed the female's place was in the home, behind closed doors, taking care of her children.   Just for the level of success she achieved in 18th century society she deserves to be mentioned with the canons of her generation.; this painting could have been hanging right next to David's monumental Oath of the Horatii. 


1  Auricchio, Lauren. "Self-promotion in Adelaide Labille-Guiard's 1785 Self-Portrait with Two Students." Art Bulletin (2007). 51 
2  Ibid., 48

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun - Portrait of Marie-Antoinette

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun, Portrait of Marie-Antoinette, 1778-1779
(Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna) 
Vigee-LeBrun was Marie-Antoinette's favorite portraitist and such a close confidant that the queen aided her entrance to the Academie by having her husband Louis XVI interfere on her behalf .  This event caused whispers that she was intimately involved with the sovereign and in contemporary terms that she basically slept her way to the top. Looking at this portrait of the queen that pronouncement is a little difficult to acknowledge as truth.  Vigee-LeBrun was a true royalist and had to flee France the night of the Revolution are true however.

In this rococo painting of the notorious queen who was blamed to almost single-handedly, bring down the ancien regime Vigee-LeBrun depicts Marie-Antoinette in all her royal glory.  The queen is shown standing in a very elaborate dress of satin and lace with huge paniers holding out the skirts attesting to her noble status.  The red velvet covered table that holds the crown and the bust of her husband Louis XVI seen on top of the column to her right are also some of the elements befitting a queen that are incorporated into the painting.

This is the first portrait Vigee-LeBrun painted of the queen from real life.  Similar to a history painting, it is a huge work involving many components and would have taken several sittings.  Vigee-LeBrun wrote her memoirs explaining how she proceeded with making portraits of royalty, starting with trying to make the sitter very comfortable.    In order to avoid the sitter appearing too tall, she made sure that the head was not placed too high on the canvas.  Another important factor to take into consideration was for the model to be presented in a space where she did not overtake it.

Vigee-LeBrun, The artist's maid, 1778
(Musee Carnivalet, Paris)
Jacques-Louis David,
Queen Marie-Antoinette on the
Way to the Guillotine,
1793
(Musee du Louvre)
Although this is a painting in the rococo style, with an abundance of drapery and flowers and soft brush strokes, critics still identified the brush strokes as a sign of Vigee-LeBrun's identity as a female.   The cross-hatching  technique that was taught at the academy was also considered feminine as opposed to Jacques Louis David's strong contours.  Maybe  identifying all that was of the ancien regime and corrupt as a feminine style and adapting a more stern style in art and calling it more masculine was more consoling to their sensibilities.  It is also interesting to compare Vigee-LeBrun's painting of Marie-Antoinette in 1778 to the drawing of David in 1793. It may even be recognized as a lesson in humility.

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun - a Female Academician

Vigee-LeBrunn, Peace Bringing Back Abundance,  1780,  exhibited at Salon of 1783
(Musee du Louvre)
This was the reception piece Vigee-LeBrun submitted into the Academie to be admitted as a member.  The French Royal Academy did not accept female artists as members on the premises of their supposed inferiority to the male artists but between its foundation in the 17th century and the revolution, a few women were allowed within its hallowed halls.  Out of the total of 450 members  there were between 12 to 15 who were female, and those would only would be accepted four at a time.  Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun along with Adelaide Labille-Guiard were accepted into the Academie in 1783 only after the deaths of two female artists.

Prior to their acceptance into the academy they were both members of the Academie de Saint-Luc which was the ancient artist's guild.  One of the original reasons for establishing the Academie de peinture et de sculpture was to distinguish real artists from the artisans and provide them with the necessary teachings besides drawing and painting to allow them to become the artistic geniuses they were.  Also the Academie was state sponsored and artist got paid by the government so they could create without being beholden to trade. Members of the Academy of Saint-Luc were frowned upon because of their involvement with the trade.

Although Vigee-LeBrun aspired to be a history painter, the most prestigious of the genres, she could only be accepted as genre painter, two steps lower than male academicians.  Since women could not work from live models and were not educated in anatomy, they could not become history painters which would preclude them from having all the privileges the male artists gained like studio space and an allowance.  Although it was impossible for her to be a history painter, Vigee-LeBrun still produced a work of art that could actually very well have been accepted as such.

In Peace Bringing Back Abundance, Vigee-LeBrun represents two allegorical figures using traditional symbols, Peace on the right garbed in darker colors is wearing a crown of laurels on her dark hair, and carrying an olive branch, while Abundance is blond wearing white and gold and bearing a cornucopia full of fruits, flowers in her hair and holding ears of wheat, her fertility is pronounced with her exposed breast.  France had been a supporter of the American War of Revolution and this painting underscores that involvement.

Vigee-LeBrun showed incredible artistry in this piece but she was admitted into the Academie with reluctance plus pressure from the crown, because of her husband's profession of being an art dealer.   It seems the Academie did all they can to try to dissuade female artists from joining their ranks but one or two exceptional artists still managed to get by.   

Jacques- Louis David - The Master of Neoclassicim

Jacques-Louis David, Self Portrait, 1794
(Musee du Louvre)
Jacques-Louis David was born into an upper class family with connections in the Academie  royale d'architecture (Royal Academy of Architecture) and was supposed to study to be either a lawyer or an architect.  But he was adamant about becoming an artist.  His father had died when he was nine years old leaving his education in the care of his uncles who themselves were architects.

He started his studies at the Academie de peinture et de sculpture but was soon disillusioned with the constraints of the strict academy education which he believed was designed to suppress artistic genius and originality, particularly his own.  This is thought to be the reason for his rebellion against the despotic institutions of the ancien regime during the Revolution, including the Royal Academy which he helped to abolish in 1793.1  After three consecutive tries, David finally won the prestigious Prix de Rome and could go and study there.  At first he said he was only interested in the works of the Renaissance masters but after he got to Rome, Classical sculpture became his main obsession and he captured the purity and power of contour from Winckelmann's teachings.
Jaques-Louis David, Belisarius Begging for Alms, 1781
(Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille)
Before David started painting Belisarius Begging for Alms in late 1780 as a preliminary entry submission for acceptance into the Academie, he asked the academy what subject he should paint, showing his compliancy. But some scholars argue that this painting actually signifies David's "prerevolutionary radicalism"  and his involvement in the Revolution was the logical conclusion of being a radical,  intellectual, enlightened artist.2


Belisarius was a very successful and loyal general in Byzantine Emperor Justinain's army but he fell from grace, his property was seized and he was blinded. Belisarius was reduced to begging in the streets.  This story was popular during the Enlightenment in mid 18th century France both in art and literature.  In the painting David depicts the moment when a blind old man accompanied by a child, holding out his helmet for a woman to put coins in it is recognized as Belisarius by one of the soldier's who served under him.  The soldier is horrified at seeing his old commander begging in the streets.  The underlying message  being 'this could happen to anyone who is a traitor to the crown" would be understood by the young artists who were in awe of David.

David has depicted the scene taking place in front of very rigid, solid, doric columns and a distant Roman city in the background.  The composition is perpendicular to the viewer's line of vision.  David's strong outlines delineates all the figures from one another and the background.  Although this painting is cited as the first manifesto to Neoclassical painting, there are some lapses in David's work.  The position of the soldier, behind and higher than the woman would necessitate him to be taller. While he has used proper perspective in depicting the tiles on the right side of the painting, the tiles on the left side do not have the illusion of going back in space.  David does not seem to be too concerned with such details and in the future would have his students work on the little details.

It is still a little obscure how David would produce such a subject that could very well be construed as a criticism of the monarchy but the concepts of Enlightenment and the sovereigns perspective on the arts seems to be intersecting during the reigns of Louis XV and XVI.  On the one hand the Enlightened artists, philosophers, and literary figures finding patronage and an intellectually fertile ground in the Salons of aristocratic ladies, the most interesting example being Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour being the protector of the Encyclopedia, and  on the  other some of those figures being arrested for the works discussed at those Salons. The more I learn, the more confounding I find 'the Age of Reason.'

1  Kohle, Hubertus. "The Road from Rome to Paris:  The Birth of a Modern Neoclassicim." Jacques-Louis David:  New Perspectives. Newark [Del.: University of Delaware, 2006. 71. Print
2 Ibid., 74

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sir Joshua Reynolds - Portrait of Mrs Siddon as the Tragic Muse

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse,1784
(The Huntington Library, Pasadena, California)

In France, the Director-General of Buildings under Louis XVI, Count Charles-Claude d'Angiviller, as soon as he took office in 1774, issued a letter to the director of the Academy declaring that from the governments perspective, art's highest aim should be to promote virtue and to combat vice.  In order to achieve this he proposed to commission historical paintings with a strong moral impact.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, across the channel in England was preaching the same thing and calling for a return to a great style of painting that was simple, natural and beautiful in the style of the classical works of art.  Reynolds, one of the founders and the first president of the Royal Academy was a great portraitist and the leading figure in trying to elevate the art of portraiture to a grand style similar to history paintings.  In England, unlike France, the majority of works commissioned were from private patrons instead of the government, making the production of large-scale history paintings difficult.  Artists usually would attempt these to stand out at the academy exhibitions but otherwise concentrated on painting portraits which was always in demand.   His Portrait of Mrs Siddons as a Tragic Muse is a wonderful incorporation of the ideas for a grand style in portraiture.1

Mrs Siddons was at the height of her career when Reynolds painted this portrait.  In Greek Mythology every art had a corresponding muse or a goddess that inspired the artist and Reynolds must have found representing Mrs Siddons as the tragic muse, most appropriate.  There is a story that when she came into his studio Reynolds took her hand and led her to the chair uttering the words "Ascend your undisputed throne; bestow on me some idea of the tragic muse."  At which time she immediately sat and assumed the attitude in which she was painted.2  The pose is reminiscent of Michelangelo's depiction of one of the prophets on the Sistine Chapel.


Reynolds has depicted a fair Mrs Siddons, as a luminescent muse, amongst the dark shadows where the allegorical figures of Terror and Pity hover behind her. He has elevated her station by placing her on such a large scale painting, sitting on a throne with a little stool underneath her feet. The way one arm rests and the other is held with no effort adds to the sense of nobility. The scale of the painting and the  subject matter of  an allegory has made this painting almost on par with history painting.

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Mrs Sarah Siddons, 1785
(The National Gallery, London)
Reynolds' innovations becomes even more pronounced when comparing this painting with Thomas Gainsborough Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons painted in 1785.  In the Gainsborough portrait the influence of rococo is very apparent in the soft brush strokes and the finely worked textures and fabrics of her clothing. This is the perfect likeness of a well-bred woman with an averted gaze sitting with her powdered hair, in silks and furs placed at the very front of the canvas.    While Gainsborough displays his sensuous brushwork in this painting in the rococo style, Reynolds, by concentrating on what he calls a "nobleness of conception"  and "dignifying his figure with intellectual grandeur," has created a portrait akin to the grand history paintings that were beginning to be produced in France.  


1 Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, Nineteenth-Century European Art, second edition, Pearson Education 2006
2  Estelle May Hurll, Sir Joshua Reynolds, A Collection of Fifteen Pictures and a Portrait of the Painter with Introduction and Interpretation, Project Gutenberg E-Book, 31

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Angelica Kauffman - Neoclassicism's Female Hero

Angelica Kauffman, Zeuxis Selecting Models for his Painting of Helen of Troy, 1778
(Brown University Library, Providence, Rhode Island)

"By the ideal, I mean that which one sees only with the imagination, and not with the eyes; thus an ideal in painting depends upon selection of the most beautiful things in nature purified of every imperfection."
- Anton Raphael Mengs

Meng's words ring true of the accepted notion in 18th century that the idealism of Classical art was due to the Greek's search for perfection in nature. Since the Creator's true ideal was dispersed into nature and did not exist as a perfect whole in any one thing, it had to be compiled together by the artist.  It is possible to interpret Angelica Kauffman's painting Zeuxis Selecting Models for his Painting of Helen of Troy as a depiction of this notion.  According to the Roman author Pliny, the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis could not find a woman beautiful enough to portray as Helen of Troy, the archetype of the feminine beauty, so he picked the best features of five virgins to compose the most ideal image of beauty.  In this painting, the male artist is in the process of selecting the most perfect feature of the models; we even see an instrument on the floor by his foot that would be used to measure.  The one feature that sets this interpretation apart is the fifth model to the right of the artist who seems to be standing before the canvas with a brush in her hand.  She has taken the position of the artist/creator and instead of being one of the passive models who are being objectified, she is actively creating art.  Given the gender of the artist, this could be read as Kauffman's commentary on her identity as an artist.  

The Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman was a child prodigy; she was very gifted in art, music and could speak a number of languages.  She was trained by her father, brought to Rome and encouraged to study Classical sculptures and the work of the Renaissance masters.  When she moved to London she befriended Reynolds and impressed her contemporaries so much that she was invited as a founding member to the Royal Academy.  She aspired to be a history painter since this was the top echelon of all the genre's of painting.  Figures were an inherent part of history paintings but female artists had no knowledge of the human anatomy, since they were not allowed to work from a live model.  Kauffman had to rely on her studies from sculptures for her figures.  There were a lot of rumors circulating about Kauffman and she was maligned in the writings of some satirists.  But she still seems to have taken control of her life and career and become a favorite of the aristocracy.   She had moved from the position of objectified female to  the creator/artist. 

The English were not so enthusiastic about history painting as their French counterparts, portraiture was what they demanded.  Along with painting the portraits of "who was who" of her day, Kauffman also painted mythological scenes.  Although the subject of this painting was Neoclassical, the style was still more Rococo.  Instead of the rigid outlines and stoics figures of Neoclassicism, Kauffman used sfumato, her figures blending with the background.  Her diversity as an artist can be better understood when comparing this painting with Cornelia Pointing to Her Children as her Treasures from 1785.

Angelica Kauffman, Cornelia Pointing to her Children as her Treasures, 1785
(Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia)
This painting depicting exemplum virtutis (example of virtue) from Roman history is much closer to Neoclassicism.  Cornelia was a matron known for her virtue, modesty and honor. Here she is being visited by another female who is displaying all her worldly goods, looking askance at Cornelia to see her treasures.  Cornelia points to her sons who have come back from school as her treasures, displaying maternal virtue.  She also holds her daughter's hand but there is a bit of ambiguity when it comes to interpreting this figure.   For one thing, Cornelia does not include her in her treasures causing some to speculate boys were more important than girls.  The little girl seems to be quite taken with the jewelry of the other matron, confirming the stereotypical gender role.   

Stylistically, the Neoclassical elements are present in the figures standing on a shallow, horizontal plane as if on a procession, the wall and the column in the back forming a stark background, the clean outlines  and perspective as well as the subject of female virtue from Roman history.

All the ideals of the scholars and artists of mid 18th century can be seen in Angelica Kauffman's Cornelia.  Her elevated style of painting is in the grand manner as Reynolds was calling for, the morally exemplary subject matter is from ancient Rome, her figures idealized and outlined  as prescribed by Winckelmann and Mengs, thus the artist has seen with her imagination and selected all that is beautiful in nature.  This extraordinary artist who lived in and abided by the norms of a male dominated society that would deny her the right to learn something vital to her profession, still found a way to depict scenes from her unique perspective and is counted as one of the precursors of her time.

Johann Zoffany - The Academicians at the Royal Academy

 Johann Zoffany, The Academicians at the Royal Academy, 1771
(The Royal Collection, United Kingdom)
The French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture had opened in Paris in 1648 in order to educate young artists under the supervision of an academy member in drawing from casts of classical sculptures and live models.  It was a way to professionalize the artist and ensure upholding high standards as well as elevating the visual arts as a cultural  phenomenon.  With similar goals in mind the  Royal Academy in London opened in 1768.   Membership to the academy was the highest reward for an artist at this time.

The British Royal Academy had 34 founding members that included two female artists, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser.  The first president of the Royal academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, was also calling out to elevate art in the grand manner based in the art of Michelangelo and Raphael and similar to its French counterpart, the students were drawing from casts of classical statuary as well as the life   model.

This painting is a very good example of what a life class must have looked like at the Academy which was a place to teach and to learn.  All along the walls, it is possible to see classical sculptures and the academicians are looking at two male nudes, one standing, the other sitting down.  There seems to be an apparatus of some sort, a curve that is attached to the standing model's arm, helping him to hold his pose.  Almost all the founding members are present except the two female members who are present only as paintings on the right wall. The only other female presence is a castoff torso that is lying down on the floor in the right foreground.  A newly elected academician Richard Cosway, who was known for not having too much affection for women has his stick on her torso.

The male models used were usually soldiers and the artist who wanted to study the female nude had to do it privately and usually with a prostitute since women of virtue could not pose for them.  Even the females who themselves were academicians could not be present in a life class because their reputation would suffer; so they too are objectified in this assembly of their contemporaries and associates. This restriction affecting the genre of painting they could aspire to, making historical painting quite impossible without a knowledge of the anatomy. 

Benjamin West - Death of General Wolfe at Quebec

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770
(National Gallery of Canada)




























When Benjamin West exhibited The Death of General Wolfe, at the Royal Academy in London, it caused a controversy.  Even though George III liked West and owned 65 of his paintings, he was advised by Sir Joshua Reynolds not to purchase it. The dispute was over the clothing of the protagonists.

The painting depicts the moment General Wolfe dies at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, a  battle that took place in 1759, between France and Britain over Quebec. General Wolfe is aware of British Victory before he dies, making his a death worthy of the cause.  West had used the traditional pyramidal composition with the flag being the top of the pyramid and placed General Wolfe and the surrounding figures in a pose that recalled the Lamentation of Christ, but he had depicted the figures of a history painting in contemporary garb. Up until now, the figures in history paintings had always appeared in  antique armor, as a matter of fact, West was asked to change the clothing but he refused. To add insult to injury, he also had General Wolfe in a very plain uniform.  There was also the problem of the fictitious American Indian, in the front of the picture plain who is sitting by the group in deep thought, observing the two countries fighting over a land that belonged to the natives.  This may be a reference to the noble savage Rousseau had written about, who happens to be much simpler and more virtuous than those corrupted by all the vices of modern society. 

Benjamin West, took a contemporary heroic subject and represented it realistically for an 18th century English audience as a history painting, which was at the top of the hierarchy for genres of painting.  With this bold work, he proved that heroism and sacrifice might be noble enough to not warrant costumes from another era in the depiction of historical events worthy or painting.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Benjamin West - Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus


Benjamin West, Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1768
(Yale University Art Gallery)




























Benjamin West was an American artist who went to study in Rome in 1760 and returned to England in 1763, to remain there for the rest of his life.   Upon his return, the Archbishop of York commissioned West to paint a story from Roman history, Agrippina returning from Syria with the ashes of her assassinated husband Germanicus. She was considered to be very noble and brave since it was believed that Emperor Tiberius who was Germanicus' uncle and adopted father was responsible for the brilliant General's demise. In West's painting we see her as she lands in Brundisium carrying an urn with her two children Caligula and Agrippina junior, all dressed in white (the color of mourning) and is greeted by a large crowd of sympathizers who loved her husband and admired her courage and virtue.  She stands composed, not showing her pain on the face of this tragedy which points to the stability of her character.

Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, conforms perfectly with the demands of the art scholars of the time who were appealing for a morally edifying art.  Agrippina's actions represented exemplum virtutis (example of virtue) meant to inspire paralel virtues in it's viewers.  West has highlighted Agrippina and her retinue in the middle of the painting in a freeze-like setting which is reminiscent of the friezes he must have seen in Rome.  The ancient Roman city in the back forming a stage-like setting, Agrippina's stoic stance and the dramatic lighting effects are all typical elements of neoclassical painting but some elements of the rococo style are also present.  The crying women in the left forefront and the agitated boatmen on the right are worked out with sinuous lines and  more vivid colors.

Benjamin West was one of the founders and the second president of the Royal academy in London, which was quite a way to go for a man from Pennsylvania, in such a class conscious society. Thanks to him, a lot of other American artists got established in England as students and professionals.   According to the Yale University Art Gallery label, this painting would help him become a favorite of the King, George III, who was his life-long patron.   

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Joseph Wright of Derby - A Classical Romantic in the Age of the Industrial Revolution


Joseph Wright of Derby, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, 1765
(Private Collection)


Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery, 1766
(Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England)

Joseph Wright of Derby, Experiment with an Air Pump, 1768
(National Gallery, London)

Joseph Wright of Derby is an 18th century artist that really stands out due to his unusual depictions of dark interiors with a hidden light source a little reminiscent of Carvaggio and De La Tour, two artist I find incredibly fascinating.

An avid believer in the enlightenment, he was part of an intellectual group, the Lunar society, who believed in the unity of science, philosophy and art.  They got their name from their monthly meetings being held on the first Monday before a full moon.



Georges de La Tour, The Newborn, 1645
(Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes)
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio,
The conversion of St. Paul, 1601
(Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome)























What I find worthy of observing here is that Derby painted these works, around the same time that in France Fragonard  was showing The Swing, 1767, Jean-Baptiste Greuze was showing, Septimius Severus and Caracalla, 1769 and in London, Benjamin West was displaying Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus, 1768, at the Royal Academy.

Fragonard, The Swing, 1767
(Wallace Collection, London)
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Septimius Severus and Caracalla, 1769
(Musee du Louvre)
Benjamin West, Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1768
(Yale Univeersity Art Gallery)


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