Sunday, March 26, 2017

Two-dimensional Narratives from the 19th century

Benjamin West (England)
Venus consoling Cupid stung by a bee
ca. 1802
oil on canvas
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (France)
Innocence preferring Love to Wealth
oil on canvas
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Jacques-Louis David (France)
Sappho and Phaon
oil on canvas
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Pierre Guérin (France)
Narcissus, Morpheus, and Iris
oil on canvas
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

"There is nothing more cosmopolitan than Eternity,"  Baudelaire once wrote, solving with a meteoric flourish some serious questions that were vainly to occupy the minds of many anthropologists of the century to come. Some problems have no answers because they don't need any. Among these, one is that of the clear affinity among the myths of the human species. Baudelaire's view was that these myths should be seen as branches of "a tree that grows everywhere, in all climes, under all suns, spontaneously and without any grafts." If myths are, as Lévi-Strauss once suggested, that which is not lost in translation, one can say that, among alleyways, forests, tents, and caravanserais, those stories have also been the most reliable lingua franca, and maybe the only one used since earliest times, efficiently and without interruption."

 from La Folie Baudelaire by Roberto Calasso, translated by Alastair McEwen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

Charles Saligo (Belgium)
ca. 1824-26
oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

August Matthias Hagen (Germany)
Sea Bay
oil on canvas
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Joseph Severn (England)
Prayer to the Virgin near the Pantheon, Rome
oil on canvas
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

In the background of Joseph Severn's depiction of pious Romans praying before a street-side shrine (above) looms the silhouette of the ancient Pantheon, the most impressive building to have survived intact from the ancient world. Clearly visible as features of that silhouette are the outlines of two Christian bell-towers added in the 17th century by Gianlorenzo Bernini and his cronies at the Vatican. These erections were removed about two hundred years after their installation  and just a few years after Severn painted his vision of popular piety. Though successful as an expatriate artist, Joseph Severn is mainly remembered today as the friend who accompanied Keats to Rome in 1820, nursing him there until the poet's death.

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (France)
ca. 1840
oil on canvas
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Samuel Palmer (England)
Going home at curfew time
Victoria & Albert Museum, London

John Singer Sargent (USA)
Model standing before stove
ca. 1875-80
oil on canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jean-Paul Laurens (France)
Emperor Maximilian in Mexico before Execution
oil on canvas
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Giovanni Boldini (Italy)
The Recital
oil on panel
Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Max Liebermann (Germany)
In the field
ca. 1890
Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Nicolaas van der Waay (Netherlands)
Amsterdam orphan girl
ca. 1890-1910
oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

"We must discourage the fine arts":  this celebrated mot of Degas's was also one of his most commendable and clear-sighted.  As the end of the century loomed, Degas observed with steadily growing irritation the progressive aestheticization of everything.  He felt that the world was on the verge of falling into the hands of a troop of interior decorators.  In this he was of one mind with Karl Kraus, who, a few years later, was to declare that by then the world was divided between "those who use urns like chamber pots and those who use chamber pots like urns."  The point that tormented him was this:  the more widespread aesthetics grew, the less intense it became.  The next century was opening up before Degas's eyes.  A century in which everything, even massacres, would be subjected to the whim of some art director, while art – especially the ancient art of painting, the one that was most important to him – would become ever more inconsistent or might even dissolve."

 from La Folie Baudelaire by Roberto Calasso, translated by Alastair McEwen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)