Art in Paris – Girodet at the Louvre

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Art in Paris – Girodet at the Louvre
  Some art is so firmly anchored in a world unlike our own that it defies immediate comprehension.   Imagine coming upon a picture of the Crucifixion without a road map through the history of Christianity.  Who is that man, and why are those nails stuck in his hands?  Is this the ultimate victory of the people who put in the nails or are we supposed to feel sympathy for the now dead victim?  Abstract the image from our Christian context and it’s hard to know what to think.  So it is that without a guide through the complex historical-political-social world of Anne Louis Girodet (1767-1824) you can easily get lost.  With no prior knowledge you are forced to trust only your eyes.  Unfortunately, in the case of Girodet, what your eyes tell you is not necessarily good enough.    Girodet is molded in the workshop of David, joining the atelier in 1785, the year that David exhibited the “Oath of the Horatiae” in the Salon.  The “Oath” is the first image you see when you enter the exhibition galleries.  As in so many Art History survey courses, David’s painting can serve as the very definition of Neo-classical painting in the late eighteenth century.   The subject comes from an ancient text – historical or mythical.  All the action is in the foreground of the picture and all movement is parallel to the picture plane.  Emotions are noble and quietly expressed.  Figures are ideal and their musculature carefully rendered with anatomical perfection.  The colors are pure and primary, carefully balanced warm against cool.   When Girodet submitted his work for the coveted Prix de Rome, his subject was equally noble, “Joseph recognized by his brothers” from the Old Testament histories.  He has learned his lessons well: a darkened stage-set interior pushes all the well-lit figures to the foreground; a series of gestures parallel to the picture plane serve to unite figure groups, predominant use of primary colors, expression of noble emotions in a subdued and refined manner.  Competent and compliant, he gave the jury just what they wanted and off he went to Rome for four years, all expenses paid.  He spent those four years absorbing antiquity at its source: the subjects, the archeology, the drama of the myths, and the alliances of the gods.    Perhaps it’s akin to a professor getting tenure and coming out, or a musician who signs a contract and dumps his band, but in Rome Girodet looses his compliant nature and sets out to find his own way.  He begins to absorb Italian influences through the work of Michelangelo.  Even before going to Rome, the Christ from the sculptor’s1498 “Pieta” can be seen in Girodet’s “Madonna and Christ” (1789).   His first painting in Rome, “The Sleep of Endymion” (1791), the debutant work that by tradition was sent back to France to show an artist’s progress, clearly demonstrates his.  Endymion, half human – half god, is given eternal life through his liaison with Diana.   Girodet’s canvas must have been shipped to Paris in a plain brown wrapper.  To this viewer’s eyes it lacks the noble message of neo-classicism and relies instead on a soft-core depiction of an adolescent and a mature male that might make some more conservative viewers a little uncomfortable two hundred and fifteen years later.  The voluptuous Diana is shown only as the light of divinity, a symbol of Christian spirituality.  This is a giant step away from the irreligious secular art of his master.  The sensual male nude was becoming an anomaly but Girodet exploits it for all it’s worth.   The intensity of his commitment to art is evident in his self-portrait at 28.  He uses the heavy shadows of Caravaggio and the intense direct gaze of Rembrandt.  Dressed in the white shirt of Revolutionary times he nonetheless wears a gentleman’s silk hat.  His engaging glance disguises his close call at the hands of a Roman mob and his fearful flight to Naples, repeating the trajectory of Caravaggio some150 years earlier.  Sick, unable to return to Rome, he landed in Genoa and finally returned to Paris in 1795.   Once back on native ground, his first commission involved an illustration based on a literary text by the mythical poet Ossian.  An invention of a young contemporary Scott who claimed to have found the works that he dated to the third century CE, Ossian was beloved by the French.  The spiritually imbued poems were an antidote to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and were the ideal foil for imaginative illustration.  Girodet’s commission was loosely based on an Ossian idea meant to show the apotheosis of the French heroes who died during the war of Liberty (1801-02)    “The Apotheosis of the French heroes who died for the country during the war of Liberty” (1801) commissioned for Bonaparte to decorate Malmaison, is composed like a Last Judgment.   However, in this image, nobody is excluded.  The old good guys, the antique heroes of France, are on the left, bathed in the light of divine acceptance.  The sky, above and below, is filled with the symbols of war and Empire. Swirling masses of female nudes (wingless Nikes?) proffer their support.  The recently elected ascend from the right into the waiting arms of the prior dead.  The right hand side of the canvas is filled with men in contemporary army uniforms, a group …
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