Romanticism in France

Bertall, République des arts, from Le Journal pour rire, 28 July, 1849

The leading figures in 19th century French art were Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Eugene Delacroix.  Each represented the rival schools of Neoclassicism and Romanticism.  A pupil of Jacques Louis David, Ingres was the leading exponent of Neoclassicism, and he was renowned as the champion of crisp line and contour (drawing).  Delacroix was the leading representative of Romanticism, and was known for his bravura use of color and painterly effects.  Their rivalry replayed the 17th century debate between the Poussinistes and the Rubenistes.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres Apotheosis of Homer, 1827 Louvre
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres Apotheosis of Homer, 1827

This painting, which was submitted to the Salon of 1827, was a kind of manifesto of Neoclassicism.  Based on Raphael’s School of Athens, the painting depicts the Greek poet Homer enthroned before a Greek Classical temple, and surrounded by great artists and writers from history (including Phidias, Michelangelo, Poussin).  Symmetrical, ordered, and balanced, the picture is a tribute to the rational values of the classical tradition.

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Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Grand Odalisque, 1814

Ingres also painted mythical nudes that drew on the tradition of classical art, but in this painting he broke with Neoclassicism by depicting an Odalisque (an inhabitant of a Turkish Harem), transporting the classical Venus to an exotic Near Eastern setting.  Neoclassical in style, with its emphasis on cool colors, smooth finish, and crisp drawing and design, the picture is nevertheless Romantic in subject in its mysterious exotic setting and its frankly erotic appeal.

The Imaginary Orient
The expansion of the French colonial empire stimulated curiosity about exotic peoples and places.  Eyewitness accounts by European travelers described customs that seemed alien to European audiences, and helped create an “imaginary Orient” that justified colonization on the basis of the presumed “superiority” of European civilization.  The Turkish Harem, for instance, where Muslim women lived in seclusion from male society, was an especially titillating topic.  In the European imagination, the Harem became a symbol of illicit sexuality, and proof of Near Eastern degeneracy.

In this painting, Ingres’ Odalisque reclines seductively on a couch surrounded by rich silks and furs, as she gazes at the viewer with a “come hither” expression.  She wears an oriental turban on her head, and other exotic accessories include the peacock fan, silk curtains, and a “hookkah” pipe for smoking opium.  All of this conjures up an exotic and erotic scene that catered to colonialist stereotypes of the mysterious East.

Art for Art’s Sake
When Ingres exhibited the picture at the Salon of 1819 he was criticized for the figure’s anatomical distortions.   Her back is strangely elongated, and her legs do not connect logically to the body. The artist defended himself by claiming “artistic license.”  An early champion of “Art for Art’s Sake,” Ingres proposed that artistic style is more important than fidelity to nature.  While the roots of this idea go back to 16th century Mannerism, it also anticipates the increasing license that artists will take in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ingres’ Grand Odalisque (Smarthistory)

Eugene Delacroix
Ingres’ chief rival in the 19th century French Academy was Eugene Delacroix, who rejected the values of Neoclassicism (an entry in his diary reads:  “I dislike reasonable painting.”).  While  Ingres’ style is slick, polished, and reserved (his teacher Jacques Louis David told his students:  “never let your brushwork show”),  Delacroix’s style is loose, spontaneous, and impetuous; it expresses an unrestrained passion that contrasts with Ingres’ cool Neoclassical style.

Eugene Delacroix, Death of Sardanapalus, 1826

Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus is a classic example of Romanticism.  The painting is based on a poem by the Romantic writer Lord Byron, about an ancient Assyrian King who had his women, horses, and slaves slaughtered before taking his own life.  Unlike Ingres’ Apotheosis of Homer (which was exhibited at the same Salon) the picture does not pay tribute to a noble hero; instead, it depicts a scene of sadistic violence and passion.  The style of the painting also contrasts with the order, symmetry, and rational restraint of Ingres’ homage to the Classical past:

“Delacroix, always drawn to such extreme subjects, took the opportunity to paint a vision of horror . . . The scene is one of utter chaos . . . The figures are scattered across the canvas, making it difficult to find any visual coherence . . . The lust for luxury and pleasure are reflected in the colorful objects, swathes of cloth, jewels, and the reeling bodies.”

Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, Smarthistory 

Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa is another example of a Romantic work that expresses an artist’s impassioned protest against social injustice, and man’s inhumanity to man.  The painting depicts an 1816 shipwreck off the coast of Africa.  The ship’s captain was a Royal appointee and was incompetent:

“It was captained by an officer of the Ancien Régime who had not sailed for over twenty years and who ran the ship aground on a sandbank. Due to the shortage of lifeboats, those who were left behind had to build a raft for 150 souls—a construction that drifted away on a bloody 13-day odyssey that was to save only 10 lives. The disaster of the shipwreck was made worse by the brutality and cannibalism that ensued.”

Theodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819. Louvre
Theodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819. Louvre

Gericault portrays the dramatic moment when a rescue ship is spotted on the horizon.  To prepare for the painting Gericault read everything he could in the press (there were, of course, no pictures).  He set up a full-scale raft in his studio, and even visited the local morgue to study cadavers and decaying body parts to ensure the accuracy of his picture.  The completed work was monumental in scale, which was shocking because it did not conform to expectations:

“Géricault’s Raft was the star at the Salon of 1819 . . . Critics were divided: the horror and “terribilità” of the subject exercised fascination, but devotees of classicism expressed their distaste for what they described as a “pile of corpses,” whose realism they considered a far cry from the “ideal beauty” incarnated by Girodet’s Pygmalion and Galatea (which triumphed the same year).”

Like Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, Gericault’s painting was the opposite of Neoclassicism:  rather than celebrating human reason, virtue, and nobility, this painting was a passionate indictment of social injustice, and of man’s inhumanity to man.

Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, Smarthistory 


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