Monday, September 14, 2009

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #7 - The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787, Oil on canvas, 51 x 77 1/4 in. (129.5 x 196.2 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

David is one of my personal favorite artists! His work is so powerful, so spare, so beautiful! He was privy to a superior education and the style of his training contributed to his rise as one of the great history painters. One of his early teachers was François Boucher, and though he was anxious to win the Academy's greatest honor, the Prix de Rome, it was not a fait accompli for him; his first submission was not accepted. Though he did not receive the Prix de Rome when he first attempted it, he had other commissions and prizes during his years as a student. He finally got to study at the French Academy in Rome and that is where he really connected with the classical influence that would inform his own work. As the AcDec guide states: "David became one of the most influential and successful artists of the 1780s, and some of his most important works were completed in the years leading up to the Revolution." He became very active in the politics surrounding the Revolution. "David also played a prominent role in the development of propaganda for the new Republic, staging funerals for martyrs of the Revolution, designing festivals for new secular heroes, and helping to construct a new body of symbolic imagery for the new political regime."

Because of his political bent and his artistic genius, Napolean commissioned him to create portraits of him as a statesman and as a powerful military leader. This is one of my favorite paintings of Napoleon:

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (also known as Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass or Bonaparte Crossing the Alps) is the title given to the five versions of an oil on canvas equestrian portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1801 and 1805. Initially commissioned by the Spanish Ambassador to France, the composition shows a strongly idealized view of the real crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps in 1800.

This piece of David, The Death of Socrates, was a painting he did during the early years of his career. The scene is powerful and emotional, Socrates has been accused by his society of corrupting the youth and has been sentenced to death. He chooses to be in control of his fate by drinking hemlock, a poison that kills someone slowly. He is in a prison cell - there are shackles and chains on the floor adding to the drama of the situation. Socrates is depicted as a trim, muscular and youthful man even though he is also shown as being advanced in age. His devotees are surrounding him as he points to the heavens and assures them that his soul will remain immortal. His other hand reaches out to the poison in a distracted kind of way. He is calm and assured, though his disciples are emotional and beginning to grieve his imminent death.

Back to my comment about David's spare paintings - his neoclassical scenes have an emphasis on the drama of the human predicament rather than a busy background. He uses light to increase the dramatic tension and focus the attention on the central figures. This stark, stage-like setting is very different from the frivolous, soft paintings of Rococo. Line is emphasized over color which was thought to be associated with intellectual thought rather than the emotional and sensual flavor of Rococo. This subject of classical history was meant to appeal to educated, literary people who were interested in the expanded thinking of the Enlightenment.

Self-portrait, Jacques-Louis David, 1794, Oil on canvas, 31.69 x 25.24 inches / 80.5 x 64.1 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

Sunday, September 13, 2009

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #6 - Modern Rome

Modern Rome, 1757, Giovanni Paolo Panini, Oil on canvas, 67 3/4 x 91 3/4 in. (172.1 x 233 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

We move away from the frivolity of the Rococo movement into an artistic return to the classical ideal. The classic aesthetic that the Greeks and Romans created continue to inspire artists through the ages. Neoclassical art can vary widely, but it looks back to classical art in one way or another. One reason for the rise of interest in classicism was the unearthing of the ruins in Pompeii and Herculaneum near Naples, Italy. These discoveries excited the people in the 18th century - they could see how people worked and lived ages before them.

The Grand Tour became a standard part of the education of privileged young men. Italy was at the heart of the Grand Tour - travelers would visit the important cities and sites studying, sketching and collecting artwork as a memento of their trip. Artists catered to this enthusiastic audience for all things classical. Panini was one of the great masters of vedute, or "view paintings" which were popular with the visitors to Italy on the Grand Tour.

This work by Panini, Modern Rome shows a very large gallery with paintings hung floor to ceiling; each painting is of a monument or building of "modern Rome" depicted from the eras of the Renaissance and Baroque. Gentlemen are portrayed in the gallery looking at the paintings. Panini even put in a self-portrait - he's dressed in gray, seated in an armchair and looking out of the painting. The paintings showcase the works of art and architecture a travelers would see on his Grand Tour.

Portrait of Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1705, Oil on canvas, 29.92 inches wide 37.99 inches high

Thursday, September 10, 2009

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #5 - Shepherd's Idyll

Shepherd's Idyll, François Boucher, 1768, Oil on canvas, 94 1/2 x 93 1/2 in. (240 x 237.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

François Boucher's artwork is indicative of the mature phase of the Rococo movement and is sometimes thought of as "high rococo." He was born into a working class family, but he gained entrance into the Royal Academy and then had the opportunity to study at the French Academy in Rome. He eventually was categorized as a history painter within the Royal Academy, the highest level you could achieve. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame was being a favorite painter for Madame de Pompadour. He even used her likeness in some of the goddesses in mythological scenes he created.

He was particularly fond of a subcategory of history painting called "gallant mythologies" - scenes that depicted the loves of the gods of antiquity. He drew heavily from Watteau's idea of fête galante, but Boucher's style was full of fantasy. He composed his paintings with a theatrical bent.

Let's look at Shepherd's Idyll. This painting was made two years before his death, so it is part of his mature work. It is very large - on the scale of a history painting. But this is not a scene of action and drama, but a bucolic scene depicting a moment of leisure in the life of this shepherd. The people in the painting are all dressed simply, but they are not dressed in work clothes. The 3 women and the children form an adoring circle around the relaxed figure of the shepherd.

This painting is known as an idyll, which means a charming, bucolic scene of rural life. The people are idealized, young, beautiful, living together in harmony. Though the shepherd is a working class man, it appears his life is carefree and not so involved with working! The wealthy class wanted to fantasize that the working class did not suffer excess toil, so had them portrayed as their own lives were - free of worry and hard work.

Boucher's palette was comprised of pastel tones and bright whites. He had a very painterly style - loose and free. He painted to satisfy the tastes of his clientele. He catered to the decorative style that the aristocracy craved. The salons of Paris were held by aristocratic women. They were sophisticated and loved a beautiful environment. This image closes out the Rococo period and is the epitome of the style - luxury, frivolity, soft colors, relaxation!

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Artist of the Week - Edward Burtynsky

Check out the documentary film of his work.

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #4 - Broken Eggs

Broken Eggs, 1756, Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French, 1725–1805), Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 37 in. (73 x 94 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I love Greuze! What a genre painter he was! His paintings were didactic and moralizing - with plenty of drama. Greuze was accepted into the Academy and painted this piece, Broken Eggs, while studying in the French Royal Academy in Rome. He wanted to achieve the status of history painter, but it was not to be - during his career he never broke free of genre painter. This really upset him! Because he could not achieve the higher level with the Academy, he refused to exhibit his work at the Salons for over thirty years! Take that!

Let's get to the drama.....the scene is set inside a lower class home, there is little furniture and the walls and floor are unpainted and cracked. A young girl is in the foreground, and she looks forlorn. The basket next to her is filled with eggs, but a few have spilled out of the basket and one is broken on the floor. She has just returned from trying to sell her eggs. The young man behind her also appears to have just entered the house from the street and he is removing his hat.

The old woman is not happy. She is grasping the young man's hand and pointing to the broken egg as though he is to blame, but he has a bewildered look on his face. The young boy tries to reassemble the egg in a fruitless gesture. The scene is about much more than the actual broken egg - the broken egg was also symbolic for a young girl's lost virtue. The older woman demands that the young man be accountable, but it's unclear how the scene will resolve itself. Greuze has captured a moment of drama and the viewer is given the opportunity to be the judge of the situation (and perhaps use the scene as a moralizing tale for young people in their own households!).

Self-Portrait, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1780s, Oil on canvas, 56 x 46 cm, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #3 - Wine Cooler

Wine cooler, 1753, French; Vincennes, Soft-paste porcelain, H. 7 3/4 in. (19.7 cm), W. 10 1/4 in. (26 cm), Diam. 8 in. (20.3 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Vicennes porcelain factory started in 1740 in the town of Vincennes just east of Paris. Louis XV was a major shareholder in the operation initially but acquired full ownership in 1759 and it became a national factory at that time. Before the factory in France, porcelain was imported from China.

Porcelain is a beautiful white ceramic material that when fired has a glassy surface. There are two types of porcelain made from a white clay called kaolin - hard-paste and soft-paste. Soft-paste porcelain is more challenging to produce because it has a lower clay content and is more difficult to shape. The Vincennes Manufactory produced high quality products. They enjoyed royal patronage and had superior skill working with the more challenging material.

The function of the wine cooler was to keep a bottle chilled. There is a central decorative panel with gold accents on the handles and panel. The background color, a beautiful turquoise called blue céleste, was first developed the year this was made and was a color unique to the factory. The naturalistic design is typical of Rococo - flora and foliage painted in a soft pastel palette of pinks, blues and greens. The manufacturers of fine ceramics are identified by a mark (or logo) on the bottom of the piece. The wine cooler has a "double-Louis" mark that has two intertwined letter "L's" with a letter "A" and a dot at the top and bottom. These marks changed from time to time which helps historians date works to the time frame they would have been manufactured in.

Needless to say, these items were enjoyed by the aristocracy. A table service could have as many as five hundred pieces: plates, platters, serving dishes and coolers for bottles and glasses! French porcelain of the 18th century was elegant, elaborate, glitzy and highly decorative. Imagine sitting down for dinner and being surrounded by so many beautiful pieces - ooh la la!

Portrait of Louis XV of France

Saturday, September 05, 2009

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #2 - Soap Bubbles

Soap Bubbles, ca. 1734, Jean Siméon Chardin (French, 1699–1779), Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was not born into a monied, aristocratic family and did not have access to a formal education in art. He was largely self-taught and considered himself a successful still life and genre painter. He did exhibit his work regularly at the Salons and had a supportive group of patrons. Because he painted simple scenes of typical households, people and animals, his work was embraced by people from different social strata. He sold print reproductions of his paintings which also allowed people of different socio-economic levels to have access to his art.

Soap Bubbles is a simple genre scene that is simple in its composition and color palette. You can see the influence he had from the Dutch Baroque painters. There is something voyeuristic about this painting - a young man is absorbed in the bubble that he is blowing. As it grows bigger and bigger, a small boy peeps over the windowsill, watching with excitement and wonder the act of bubble blowing. When was the last time YOU blew a bubble? Remember the opalescent colors that swirl on the surface? Isn't it interesting (and comforting!) that centuries later, we still find this activity fun and entertaining? Blowing a REAL bubble is not something your iPhone can do! Virtual bubbles are just not the same!

What may not be so obvious on the surface of this painting is the direct portrayal of social class. It was the wealthier patron that could afford to purchase an original oil painting. The elite patron had an interest in having a simple life scene which showed a moment that any social class would have enjoyed displayed in their home. But this young man is not from an affluent class. Though he is groomed and clean, his clothes do not fit him and show signs of wear. His jacket sleeves are too short and it is torn at one shoulder. This image illustrated a moment in the lives of those beneath them in class and rank, and it was something they enjoyed viewing. Interesting - so much in common (the joys of blowing bubbles) and yet also worlds apart (money and privilege).

Soap bubbles are so fragile, we know how delicate and fleeting they are! This image can represent the fleeting nature of life, so the viewer could consider the image on more than one level. Michael Levey has written about Chardin's genre paintings from his book Rococo to Revolution: Major Trends in Eighteenth-Century Painting, "Chardin refers us back to ordinary experience, concentrating it with almost microscopic intensity, tingeing it with the hint of the moral and educative, yet still not telling any specific story."

Self Portrait, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 1771, Pastel on paper, 46 x 37.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #1 - Mezzetin

Mezzetin, probably 1718–20 Jean Antoine Watteau (French, 1684–1721), Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In an art history class a few years ago, the professor had a free response question on an exam: "Choose your favorite art movement and tell me why you chose it." I surprised myself when I chose Rococo and proceeded to list the things that made my heart sing: pure entertainment, lots of pink putti, FABULOUS clothing, lovely soft colors oozing on the canvas, lots of outdoors romping, parties and last but not least, Love. Who would have thunk it!

The images this year begin with this lovely movement, Rococo. It's birth was in France, and Jean Antoine Watteau is credited for being at the forefront of the movement. An innovative artist, he painted in a looser, more painterly style than his contemporaries. His most notable contribution to art is the creation of a new genre the Académie des Beaux-Arts called the "fête galante" or gallant party. These paintings showed groups of elegantly dressed aristocrats enjoying outdoor gatherings. His submission to the Académie did not fit into their accepted genres. The hierarchy of the genres ranked the works according to their subjects: #1 history paintings, #2 portraits, #3 genre scenes and #4 still life and landscapes. The fête galante genre loosened up this rigid hierarchy and the Académie, which was historically very conservative, began to open up to new subjects and styles. It was important to individual artists to be accepted by the Académie for a successful livelihood as a professional artist.

Mezzetin shows us Watteau's interest in the theater as subject matter for his paintings. In this painting, Mezzetin (which means "half-measure") is one of the stock character actors in an Italian commedia dell'arte. There are a couple of not so subtle messages in this composition. The female figure in the background (a statue painted in the grisaillle technique) has her back turned to the wistful troubadour. He appears to be singing a love song, perhaps about unrequited love; he is fully engaged, lost in his own world.

The Louvre has a marvelous collection of Rococo art, both decorative arts and paintings. Can't get to Paris to see the Louvre's Rococo collection? Check out the virtual tour of the Watteau Room in the Louvre!

Portrait of Jean-Antoine Watteau by Rosalba Carriera.