The Complete Louvre Part 6: French History Painting


Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) was commissioned by Napoleon to paint The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine on December 2, 1804. David was present at the ceremony. While his initial sketch represented the Emperor in the act of crowning himself, the final painting shows him crowning the Empress—presenting a nobler, less authoritarian image. The Pope was brought to Notre Dame for the coronation. The story of David’s The Oath of the Horatii is set in In the 7th century BC. Three Roman Horatii brothers, chosen by the Romans to fight three Curiatii, of Alba, are swearing to defeat their enemies or die. Three arches and the three faces of the sons set the scene of three in one. Is there any wonder why David’s art was called neoclassical? As they receive their weapons from their father, the women of the family are prostrate with suffering. David’s self-portrait gives way to The Portrait of Madame Récamier, aristocrat, socialite, and gal about town, shows her sans makeup and jewelry in a simple gown reclined on a meridienne, barefoot. You make me feel like a natural woman. It is not quite finished. The three portraits of The Riviere family show Ingres (1797–1806) doing what he does best. Flanking the Raphaelian young daughter in a rectilinear frame with an oval top are the father with a Napoleon like pose in a rectangular frame and the sensuous mother in an oval frame. Here is The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons by David. Brutus’ dead sons are brought home dead after they conspired against their father, the elected consul of Rome. He holds the proof of their treachery in his hands. His stoicism is contrasted markedly by their sisters and mother on the right and especially, perhaps their grandmother, covering her grief. We take a quick detour to another part of the museum to show Poussin’s Rape of the Sabine Women. After the founding of Rome (mid 8th century BC), Romulus and his male followers needed mates. They invited The Sabines to a festival of Neptune Equester, whereupon they killed the men, raped and abducted the women. The Intervention of The Sabine Women, my favorite David, is set years later when The Sabines return to reclaim their wives and children. The painting depicts Romulus’s wife Hersilia – the daughter of Titus Tatius, leader of the Sabines– rushing between her husband and her father, having placed her babies between them. The life sized woman stops the battle as if to say; These are our husbands and children now, “Play nice.” This also embraces the new equality that the new French Republic bestowed on women. It also recalls Lysistrata, the ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes. Of Ingres’ The Apotheosis of Homer, his rival Delacroix said of it; “The complete expression of an incomplete intelligence.” Brutal. More on that feud in another film. In David’s of Leonidas at Thermopylae we see Leonidas, leader of Sparta, naked and preparing for combat. It was finished the year that Napoleon abdicated for the first time and evokes a military defeat. I guess that’s why we don’t see too many paintings about Leonidas. You can, however, watch “300.” In this replica of The Death of Marat, David paints the Jacobian journalist, murdered by Charlotte de Corday, as he bathes to sooth his skin disease while writing. After he painted it, it was led by procession through the streets of Paris. The exotic La Grande Odalisque shows Ingres was unafraid of erotic portraits. It recalls The Borghese Hermaphrodite also in The Louvre. Oh, to be a peacock feather! The Young Martyr is a painting by Paul Delaroche (1797-1856). We turn to a more successful history painting by Ingres; Roger Freeing Angelica. Not a brush stroke to be found. The Barque of Dante, shows Dante and Virgil on The River Styx. It was the first major painting by Delacroix, and one of the works signaling a shift of narrative painting from Neo-Classicism towards the Romantic movement. Plenty of brushstrokes. The bodies no doubt were influenced by Gericault, his kindred spirit. Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau was by Napoleon’s favorite painter: Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835). Sorry David. There was a Gros exhibition in Paris while Gericault was planning for his Raft of the Medusa. You can smell Gros’ stench of death in that painting. If David was called neoclassical it can be said of The Romantics that they were neobaroque. The Raft of The Medusa, Gericault paints the scene of a raft lost at sea in 1816. 150 passengers were stranded by the captain who took all the lifeboats which resulted in starvation, madness and cannibalism. Only 15 survived and it was a scandal. Gericault’s preparation included taking home dead body parts to paint as they decayed. Good neighbor! Women of Algiers was painted by Delacroix on a diplomatic mission after France conquered Morocco in 1830. He was entranced by his Jewish subjects as Muslim women were not allowed to be painted. The Death of Sardanapalus, also by Delacroix, was inspired by Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus. Besieged by his enemies in his palace, Sardanapalus committed suicide. Never the loner, he decided to bring all of his concubines with him. The pointless carnage borders on eroticism. There’s a lot of death in this part of the museum. Liberty Leading The People on July 28, 1830 may be the last allegorical painting in European art. Here the dead bodies themselves form a barricade as the bourgeoisie and poor participate in the street revolution of 1830. An effeminate figure looks up at the profile of this “goddess,” in a classical profile, striding towards us. Upon it’s showing in the Salon of 1831, just a year later, it was purchased by the government of France. It was so incendiary that it remained unseen until the next revolution in 1848.

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