Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 1)

Lest we find ourselves completely out of the historical order of the 19th century, it is vital that I point out here and now that history is rarely an exact, mathematical study.  Periods of history blend together.  This is easily enough understood, I trust.  It isn't like the world was still living in agrarianism in 1799, and as soon as the calendar turned to 1800, then the Industrial Age began—not at all.  Art is the same way; our periods will increasingly begin to blend and mesh together.  Not to worry: just keep in mind that other things are continually happening during a single period of art.  I think the French Revolution is one of the greatest examples of an absolute and immediate turn-around in the art world.  After 1789, Rococo art met its end almost immediately, given the violent extremity of the situation in France—almost.  The style still was continued on here and there.  American artist Edward Hicks's painting Peaceable Kingdom, painted in 1826, for example, still demonstrates the aristocratic ideology of Rococo-style art.
This Post-Revolutionary painting is also an example of propaganda in that it showcases European supremacy.  On the left, Europeans make peace with the Native Americans; and on the right, little children, pure and clothed in white, make peace with otherwise savage animals.  The two sides are correlative: the Europeans are pictured as innocent babies learning to tame the allegedly uncivilized and savage Native American beasts.  This is a very white supremacist message, and one which honors the upper-class aristocracy over the common man (or Indian)—a Rococo-inspired theme.  I always thought it was kind of a weird painting.  Look at the wildness in the animals' eyes, showing how dangerous and undomesticated they truly are; but the babies are calmly sitting nearby and even petting the beasts.
Paintings like this continue to be produced, but noticeably less after the French Revolution and, eventually, not at all.  So, we see a crossing-over with Rococo into Neoclassical art.  The timeline is not always precisely in sequence.  In fact, one of the chief works credited to the Neoclassical Period of art was painted by David before the Revolution: his Oath of the Horatii.  We furthermore see a combination of Neoclassical art with Romantic art.  We have arrived in our study of art history at the Romantic Period now, but that does not mean that Neoclassical styles have altogether expired.  In fact, Romanticism (capital R) took much of its inspiration from Neoclassical theory, and these qualities can be seen in many of the paintings we are about to look at.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 9)

It is no surprise, then, that Napoleon commissioned David to paint a commemorative work depicting the emperor's own coronation.  Here is an indelible scene: Napoleon, who had promised to serve the people, crowning himself emperor.  The man would go on to conquer half of Europe and become one of history's most infamous dictators, but here we see this brief moment of time before all of that happens; foreboding, isn't it?  The image of a man crowning himself is perhaps an ominous image, but it is definitely one for us to remember when considering the big political questions of our time.  It's a magnificent painting, over thirty feet long and twenty feet high.  And the artist gives no small attention to detail in this enormously painted scene which is so full of radiant colors and brilliantly clad courtiers.  Jacques-Louis David's painting of Napoleon's coronation is one of my favorite paintings, so I could spend a long time discussing it—the abundance of interesting characters in the scene, the significance of each individual's placement in the scene and what they're holding or doing, the artistic approach to producing the scene's atmosphere, the colors used, which figures are painted taller than others and why, facial expressions, hidden persons in the crowd, et cetera—but for now we must keep going.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 8)

Anyway, that is the type of style we see in Neoclassical art.  Meanwhile, Napoleon, as newly self-appointed Emperor of France, hires Jacques-Louis David as his official court painter and commissions him to paint a number of flattering portraits.  One such famous portrait the artist made was of Napoleon in His Study, which made use of vertical lines to exaggerate the emperor's height.  In reality, Napoleon was a very short man, but the vertical length of this painting makes us constantly gaze up and down like an elevator changing floors.  The column on the left, the grandfather clock on the right, the table leg behind, and the chair leg in front of him are all vertical lines, pointing our eye, in a way, all along the height of the work.  Napoleon himself, clothed in white, appears vastly larger than he almost assuredly would have looked in person.  That is one reason why this painting is another example of propaganda; it seeks to impress upon us an exaggerated and biased image of Napoleon as a great emperor.  Also, look at the clock; it's four in the morning!  But Napoleon has his candle lit and is hard at work in his study even at this hour, shown to be toiling far into the night for the well-being of his people.  David certainly knew how to paint his emperor well.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 7)

Neo-Classical art, arriving by no mere coincidence simultaneously alongside a period of national revolutions and political uprisings, sought to revive the ideals of Ancient Greek and Roman art.  The prefix "neo" means "new"; so you can think of this as "New Classical" art.  It is characterized by balanced compositions, flowing contour lines, and noble gestures and expressions.  Artists looked back to Classical forms to express courage, sacrifice, and patriotism.  New governments, such as the one in America, took inspiration from older political models, like those from Ancient Greece and Rome (the idea of a "senate," for example), and in turn celebrated the re-birth, so to speak, of those Classical ideals in their art.  French Academies endorsed art based on Greece and Rome, and in fact Napoleon himself wanted to supersede the Roman Empire.  His reign as emperor effectively ended the Holy Roman Empire which had been governing since the Middle Ages and which was basically the successive extension of the Ancient Roman Empire itself.
Demonstrating this as clearly as possible for us is The Apotheosis of Homer, painted in 1827 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.  (An "apotheosis" is the elevation or exaltation of a person to the rank of god).  Homer, the great Greek poet, sits here in the place of honor, enthroned and being crowned by a figure representing the Nike of Samothrace.  The two women sitting on the steps (wearing orange, on the left, and green, on the right) are the Iliad and Odyssey.  Contrary to the former French Rococo style, which painted flowery and soft images, the artist here paints with harsh lines and rigidly geometric exactness in order to demonstrate the structural precision and symmetry of the artistic works from Ancient Greece and Rome.  Instead of natural, pastoral landscape scenery we transition back to the architectural façades of buildings like the Acropolis.  To adequately portray the Ancient Greeks' devotion to symmetry, use of line had to be employed properly, with great attention to structure and form.  For Ingres, it was the most important element in the painting.  Note that the austerely linear geometry lends greatly to the painting's feeling of gravity and solemnity.
This painting brings to mind Raphael's School of Athens, which was also Classically inspired.  It pictures an impressive assembly of immortals representing the arts.  This painting, like Raphael's Renaissance masterpiece, is an expansion of the Renaissance concept of sacra conversazione (in Italian, "sacred conversation").  A sacra conversazione was originally the idea behind many religious paintings of Heaven, where all the saints were pictured together in communion with each other and with their Lord, but the idea disseminated to more secular artists who painted great scenes of various important historical figures assembled in one location, like a party, for discussion and communion.  It is a gathering of history's greatest intellectuals, come together to discuss matters of art, philosophy, and politics.  The figures surrounding Homer in this painting are other poets, philosophers, and artists including: Phidias, Virgil, Fra Angelica, Aeschylus, Racine, Molière, Raphael, Dante, and Shakespeare.  The sacra conversazione concept is a fun one, because you can imagine in your own mind which historical figures you would like to have a conversation with if you could meet with anybody from the past.  Hmm…

Friday, November 22, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 6)

Napoleon is in office.  After his successful coup d'état overthrowing the French Directory in 1799, he hired a painter to commemorate his victory.  Since, Jacques-Louis David was a friend and admirer of Napoleon, he was commissioned to paint Napoleon's crossing of the Alps.
Let me take this moment to say that images are very powerful—that is why some images are kept hidden from us.  Images can engrain themselves in our head, etching deep into our memory and impressing upon our thoughts and emotions.  I did a quick Google search, and it appears that, statistically speaking, it has been estimated that about 65 percent of people are visual learners; but even so, regardless of percentages and Google search results, all humans react to things they see.  It is largely how we glean truth from any phenomena: by what we see.  And inasmuch as art (the kind which we are looking at) comprises itself most predominantly of images, art as propaganda can dramatically influence people; because an artist is an image creator.  Art can make people question their government.  An image can make a person cringe at the thought of warfare.  Propaganda makes heroes and villains.  Through images, populations can be swayed to becoming followers or enemies of rulers, governments, and belief systems.  It's very powerful stuff.
Here we see Napoleon Crossing the Alps.  The future emperor of France is sitting on a wild horse that is rearing up, but Napoleon appears calm, resolute, and determined.  He is most clearly in charge, and if he can tame a wild beast with such ease, what might he be able to do for the French government?  He points upward and onward, showing his courage and perseverance, and his black, penetrating eyes seem to contain all the authority and strength of a mighty warrior.  His cape flows in the wind elegantly, making him appear spectacular and huge.  He is the picture of stunning, dominating, and awe-inspiring grace.  What's more, light from above shines down on Napoleon, demonstrating God's favor on him.  The artist glorifies this man and this scene as something altogether epic and momentous.  Actually, Napoleon's troops took the Alps and led their leader, pictured here, through the region only after they had secured it; and I think he rode on a donkey.  You can see, then, how exaggerated this painting is and how it uses propaganda to support Napoleon.  But this is still a majestic painting, to say the least, and this was how the style of art changed after the Revolution.  Majesty, rather than frivolity, characterized the subjects of Post-Revolutionary paintings, and the period became one of Neoclassicism.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 5)

Another most immediately recognizable change seen in Post-Revolutionary art is its stark seriousness.  You can't get more opposite to Rococo.  Coming out of the licentiousness of the past age, the Neoclassics would turn to much more somber themes and serious paintings.  Remember Fragonard's The Swing?  Just two decades later, Jacques-Louis David painted this.
Dark, grim, not altogether colorful, and even somewhat macabre at first glance, this painting is of The Death of Marat.  David, as we know, was very much involved in politics.  He was the one who sketched the Oath of the Tennis Court and took part in the Revolution.  Jean-Paul Marat was a major figure of the French Revolution, a man of the people, and a person whom David looked up to.  In 1793, Marat was assassinated; he was stabbed to death in his bathtub at his home.  Marat suffered from a unique skin disease that required him to spend many hours soaking in his tub and wearing a towel wrapped around his head to further remedy the ailment.  The assassin, a young woman named Charlotte Corday, was caught, tried, and executed, and I learned that the actual bathtub in which the killing took place is said to be on display at the Musée Grévin in Paris.  Yuck.
David painted this as a tribute to the man.  The bottom inscription in French dedicates the painting to Marat.  As for the painting itself, this is a good example of propaganda, painted in such a way as to generate sympathy for the death of this noble-looking man.  His corpse lies over the side of the tub, his face half-smiling in peaceful wisdom and his hand holding up a note which describes in French how he must suffer for the betterment of society.  Rather than gruesome or gory, the painting shows a "clean" death without lots of blood so as to soften viewers to the scene, not appall them.  We see the assassin's knife left at the bottom of the tub, and we are meant to feel pity for this man.  The dramatic lighting makes him even almost sculpturesque.  Marat is like the Dying Gaul of Ancient Greek and Roman art history.  This painting seeks to make a martyr out of him and does so in a very Romantic way.  Romanticism is already beginning to arrive onto the art stage right now, but we will look at that art movement later as it becomes more prevalent.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 4)

Art did something after the French Revolution that it has continually done ever since and, actually, probably always has done.  After the Revolution, art became about propaganda.  Art went simple with direct messages (opposite of Rococo).  Post-Revolutionary art would eventually of course turn into Neoclassicism, but the immediate response, which we must look at first, was a shift from the carefree Rococo style of praising the aristocracy to a medium by which the revolutionary ideals of France's own current events could be spread.  Now, just so we're sure, propaganda is information or ideas purposely spread to influence public opinion.  Let's be clear.  Propaganda is always one-sided.  We are about to look at a series of paintings that fit well under the category of propaganda art.  These are not historical paintings, although they are of historical events.  The actual historical events they purport to describe happened in fact very differently.  We cannot trust art as a medium for truth; and I know this is a rather weighty concept that should be (and will be) treated more in the future, but it needs to be brought up now.  Naturally we are more discerning when judging facts from propaganda, but it never ceases to surprise me that historical articles—like, say internet articles—will post a painting of the event alongside the text, as if it were a snapshot.  Paintings, while certainly informative in their own way, should never be taken as the full and accurate picture.  Paintings—especially these paintings we're starting on now—require further historical insight and investigation; however, since I am writing about art history, not history, I will focus more on the paintings.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 3)

Now, we know what started the French Revolution, and we understand a little better what it meant in its historical context; but what did the Revolution mean to art?  Many artists, such as Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Antoinette's portraitist, had to flee France and did not return until peace was restored.  She continued to paint, but her portraits after the Revolution typically featured people with sad, fearful expressions, like her painting called The Bather and her famous portrait of Madame de la Châtre.  Her style had always included giving people large, expressive eyes in their paintings and making them look more attractive, but after the Revolution her paintings became filled with anxiety and woe.  Her sitters appear frightened of the world and insecure about the future.  In historical hindsight an observer might mark that these figures perhaps had good reason for their apprehension.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 2)

Less than a month later, a mob of angry and exacerbated peasants and farmers launched an attack in Paris against the city's chief executive building and symbol for the political authority of the royal family in France, the Bastille.  On July 14, 1789, French townsfolk stormed the Bastille and successfully captured it, effectively seizing the entire city.  The Archbishop of Bordeaux was hired to write a first draft of their "constitution," and by late August, the people of France had produced their Declaration on the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, asserting new limits to the power of the king.  Then, soon after, yet another mob of angry lower-class farmers marched on Versailles and attacked the lavish palace of the king, capturing him, and relocating him to be held hostage in Paris.  The whole nation was now under the control of the revolutionaries and plunged largely into anarchy until the populace united into a declared republic in 1792.
These first years of the French Revolution became known as the Reign of Terror for the exorbitant bloodshed which they produced.  Under Robespierre, an untold amount of people, from royals to aristocrats to ordinary lower-class men and women, were executed or killed either under the authority of the French Republic itself or in the Revolutionary Wars the nation-state engaged in after the execution of King Louis XVI.  Among them: Marie Antoinette, who was put on trial for treason, immorality, and even maternal abuse and was guillotined on October 16, 1793.  She was found guilty by a jury of nine men.
The Republic failed, the Terror ended, eventually Robespierre was himself executed, and new political organizations took control of France for a series of years until they were all overthrown and replaced with an imperial regime under the control of one man.  The First French Empire was declared by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804.  A few months later, in December of that same year, Napoleon crowned himself the Emperor of France and established his own reign over the next decade of French history.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 1)

In 1789 France was bankrupt.  The nation had been left in debt after the Seven Years' War and the American Revolutionary War.  The king's initial, answering decree to this dilemma was simply to increase taxes, but, clearly no economist himself, Louis XVI proved ineffective at establishing new taxation laws.  The taxes did not just rise higher, they shot dramatically upward.  Suddenly, the carefree aristocrats could no longer support their lavish lifestyles, while most peasants could not even afford food.  The rising complaint became the king's lack of concern for domestic matters.  Funding and military support had been so amply donated to the American Colonies over the past several years that France was itself at risk of collapsing into insurmountable debt.  The higher taxation that the king implemented to solve the problem only further infuriated the bourgeoisie, who quickly moved to skepticism over the effectiveness of their king, Louis XVI, in office.  The country was also suffering from an ongoing famine that led to a severe economic inflation.  Bread prices especially skyrocketed, and the first riots to break out in France among the lower-class masses dealt with this very issue.
But increasingly the nation's poor economic situation became a political issue.  Fed up on higher taxes, the French aristocracy began questioning the right of the king to absolute authority.  This had been an Enlightenment ideal (among its supporters had been Thomas Hobbes).  So, naturally an attack on their king's right to sovereignty meant not only a political struggle but an intellectual struggle as well, an ideological struggle, and even a philosophical one.  Unfortunately, circumstances were too intolerably bad to allow much time for heavy consideration over the subject—the subject which, though unspoken and indefinite, nevertheless pervaded the air: revolution—so the bureaucrats and members of the Third Estate near Versailles convened to debate and discuss the matter publically in conference.  (France did not, strictly speaking, have a parliament at this time, but neither was this a simple town meeting.  The Third Estate, briefly defined, was a societal order of lower-class people, represented by members who volunteered to appear in the Estates General, a series of ongoing political forum sessions similar to, but certainly not corresponding with, parliamentary assemblies.)  The debate was to be concerned with the nation's adoption of a constitution to replace the monarchical system of government hitherto practiced (and doubtless the idea for a constitutional government took inspiration from the American Revolution).  A constitution would limit the king's power and ensure a more stable government; but to what kind of problems would it lead?  And who would write the constitution for them?  These were all questions to be discussed in the assembly.
In late June, members of the Third Estate met in the city of Versailles to hold an Estates General assembly but were shocked to find the assembly house barred shut.  The king, fearing the growth of treacherous sentiment among the public, had the building locked and guarded, forbidding the citizens' entry into their own house of meeting.  Determined to enact this council, the five hundred plus attendees walked across the street to a nearby tennis court and met inside it.  The historic moment was commemorated in an unfinished drawing, which has since become famous, by artist Jacques-Louis David.  It was here, inside a tennis court, that members of the Third Estate decided to band together in full-out protest of the king and not stop until a constitution had been written.  Their statement of resolve toward this matter was called the Tennis Court Oath.
Perhaps the fact that the king had tried to stop ordinary citizens from meeting in public had something to do with their ultimate decision, but it has been argued that the king had not done so on purpose; that, because of the recent death of his son (sixteen days earlier) all political meeting houses were closed out of sheer formality, because the king was still in mourning.  Generally, however, it is agreed that the king overstepped his boundaries by banning citizens from public meeting houses—at least, that was the ruling of the French lower class in 1789.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rococo (pt. 11)

But we've forgotten about the Colonies!  They have since slipped away from us and become an independent nation under the leadership of General George Washington.  In 1776, the United States of America issued the declaration for their independence from the British.  We can see the influence of Enlightenment philosophies on such a decision, going back to John Locke's ideas of fundamental human rights.  In some respects the Enlightenment led to this revolutionary period that will frame our next section; for, a little over a decade after the revolution breaks out in America, the starving, neglected, and increasingly angry people of France will take inspiration from their overseas allies and enact a revolution of their own, and this revolution will shape the art world for nearly the entire century to follow.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Rococo (pt. 10)

Louis XV is attributed with saying, at the end of his reign, "Après moi, le déluge."  He was right; it came.  Succeeding his father to the throne was Louis XVI, under whose sovereignty the French economic situation did not improve.  In fact, in just a few years it worsened at the mercy of a country-wide famine that left peasants starving.  The aristocratic party, called the bourgeoisie, did nothing to prevent the situation from worsening, and the entire country fell deeper into unrest.
Married to Louis XVI was a young Austrian archduchess named Marie Antoinette who was made the queen of France at age 19.  Marie Antoinette perhaps defines Rococo living at Versailles.  She was limitlessly wealthy and almost just as prodigal with her authority, although the quote about eating cake famously attributed to her is unsupported and probably inaccurate.  Among her other amusements about the palace, she had, constructed for own personal use, a private cottage, which she called "Le Petit Hameu" (the little Hamlet).  It was designed after the style of a peasant country house.
She would frequently retreat to this cottage to literally "play peasant," or pretend to be a lower-class farmer or unskilled laborer.  The house still stands to this day (above is a photograph taken back in 2006) as a testament to the young queen's idle and ignorant lifestyle.  She would discover the irony of her pretending to identify with the lower class when she actually met them face to face a few years later, as an angry mob of peasants and farmers stormed the palace and dragged her and her family off to Paris.
Madame Vigée le Brun, the official portrait painter of the king and queen, often painted Marie Antoinette with her children under the order of the queen herself.  It is thought that, perhaps, despite all her flaws as a queen, she was at the very least a good mother to her children; but there are varying schools of thought on this.  During her later trial she would be accused of abusing her son (among other charges), but this could well have been rumor spread by the unhappy public, who invented the nickname "Madame Veto" due to her husband's repetitive practice in office of refusing to consign to any reforms that would limit his power.  Whether Marie Antoinette was the honest and caring mother many scholars have argued her to have been is largely left in mystery.  The royal couple had four children together, but only one survived past the age of ten.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rococo (pt. 9)

To get a better sense of this we can look at a painting by the artist Fragonard, who was among the most popular French artists at this time.  Pictured here is a prime example of Rococo painting, called The Swing.
An aristocratic woman is at a secret, romantic rendezvous with her lover, who is pictured on the bottom left, hiding in the bushes and looking up the woman's skirt.  They are out in a very natural setting and away from public observation.  The statue of the young angel on the left is shown holding a finger up to its mouth in a gesture of "silence," to further demonstrate that this meeting is secret (and therefore of questionable integrity).  The man on the right is probably a servant who may have arranged the meeting.  It's a scandalous piece of artwork for many reasons.  Riding on a swing was of course an unrefined activity for a lady during that time, but kicking off one's shoes had to have been even more uncivilized.  But the setting reminds us that they are in an uncivilized situation; they are out in nature, hidden from the eyes of the city and all who would condemn them.  They can afford to be uncivilized and even downright immoral in their flippant, easygoing way.  They can do whatever they want; and why shouldn't they, since they are men and women of money and resources?  It does not matter to them that their people are starving under taxation and famine; they are aristocrats, and they can certainly have a bit of adulterous fun at their own convenience.  It's utterly scandalous—the man is virtually reaching out his arm for the woman's genitalia—but consider the colors and tones Fragonard uses to create the scene.  Warm greens and soft blues establish a dreamy atmosphere of pastoral beauty and comfort, while the delicate pinks of the woman's dress connote a kind of soft loveliness and playful passion.  Angelic statues surround the place, rich lighting reigns down from above, and flowers bloom in radiance—all is bright and gay in the world of this painting.
Soft colors, light brushstrokes, delicate figures, and peaceful settings are all common motifs in Rococo art.  Life was, after all, quite good for the wealthy; and the wealthy were the only ones financially stable enough to spend money on commissioning artists to paint for them.
A friend of mine, who was also a student of art history, once defended his reasoning for liking Rococo art best among other historic art forms.  "I know it's silly," he said, "and the whole history behind it with the French aristocracy is awful; but just the style of the paintings themselves is what I like, because they're beautiful.  The colors, the brushwork—it all creates this kind of dreamy utopia.  It's painting an ideal way of how the world should be."  Although I couldn't say that Rococo is my favorite style of art, too, what he said is totally accurate.  He's right; the French painters during this period were attempting to paint an idealized version of the world (like Voltaire's "El Dorado") and, in so doing, were participating in the Enlightenment quest for the perfection of mankind.  Ultimately, it's a philosophical genre of painting; it's just that these artists arrive at their answers to supreme truth and utopian fulfillment in the spendthrift lives of the aristocracy.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Rococo (pt. 8)

At the time of the Seven Years' War, Louis XV was in power, and he was no exception to the aristocratic trend at that time for an opulent and immoral lifestyle.  He ordered the construction of a private house on the actual palace grounds solely for his mistresses to live in.  Not the least famous among his mistresses was Madame du Barry, who the king doted on with splendid gifts costing exorbitant amounts of money.  Another celebrated mistress of the king around this time (and probably the most memorable) was Madame de Pompadour, from which we derive the English word today for a pompadour.  As the king's chief mistress for almost twenty years, she was the most popular lady in France and also the leader of French fashion and style.  Her portrait here shows her extravagantly dressed in rich colors, the very image of splendor.
Even though she was the king's mistress, she is painted here as the most beautiful and refined woman of social standing.  Paintings like this one go a long way in describing the general lack of morality and responsibility among the aristocracy at this time.  That is what Rococo is all about.  The style of art centers itself around the carefree lifestyle of the upper class.  Taking a supportive view of this way of life, art continues to positively showcase the immoral in a tone of lighthearted cleverness and dreamy sentimentality.  No paintings of war or great moments in church history pass very much noticed during the Rococo Period in France.  Few serious paintings are really produced at all.  The pervading atmosphere of art at this time is wistful, cheery, pleasant, and wholly frivolous.