Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Among Tigers and Panthers....

Part Three
Painter: Vigée Le Brun. Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

"Life often seems like a long shipwreck, of which the débris 
are friendship, fame, and love."
Germaine de Staël (1766-1817), writer of fiction, political propaganda, moral and feminist essays, literary criticicism and autobiography, held the most influential salon in France during the Directoire, was committed against the principles of Empire and became one of Napoleon's most eloquent opponents, moving her centre of power to her family home in Geneva after he exiled her from Paris.

Ambitious and passionate, a profuse lover and loyal friend, she was an intellectual of international significance, who analysed the prevailing cultural and political trends of her age in the eye of the storm, and identified the whole of humanity's frailty in her own emotional needs - "We cease to love ourselves if no one loves us". She felt and lived in the C-minor key of Romanticism in all its anguished yearning and exhilarating self-assertion, writing in  Réflexions sur le suicide: "Life often seems like a long shipwreck, of which the débris are friendship, fame, and love."

The classical motifs of this painting of her in the role of her own literary heroine Corinne, do not conceal either the subjective Romanticism of de Staël, daughter of Necker, the Swiss Protestant outsider appointed to reform the finances of the ancien régime, or the playful Rococo sophistication of Vigée Le Brun, who had achieved prominence through the patronage of Marie-Antoinette. Neither artist nor subject look fully at ease with the disciplines of neoclassicism from which de Staël's irreppressible energy bursts out in rebellion, making her the main force of nature in the landscape. She said she would rather suffer than be bored.

Madame de Stl's Turban

Turbans of various kinds, simple or decorated with plumes and jewels, that had reappeared as informal headwear for fashionable women, for the first time since the Renaissance, in the pre-revolutionary 1780s, became a craze after Napoleon's Egyptian campaign (1798 -1801). 

The headdress acquired prestige among intellectuals through its association with Madame de Staël, who wore enormous, attention-grabbing turbans of brightly coloured silks:

 Germaine de Staël in one of her famous turbans, c.1810, in a detail of a painting attributed by different sources to François Gérard or, more likely from the style and background, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy Trioson.

Part Four
Painter: David. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art
Juliette Récamier (1777-1849) had the most exquisite taste and sweetest nature of all the literary and political hostesses of post-Revolutionary, Empire and Restoration France. She influenced the fashion for classically-inspired simplicity of dress and interior design. David's unfinished painting of her in1800 is the incarnation of neoclassicism at its purest and most austere, while Gérard's even more famous image of her draped seductively on a chair, is the most sensual. She was at her most fulfilled being a muse and symbol. Like her friend Madame de Staël, she opposed Napoleon, who exiled her from Paris.

Among her many admirers was a Prussian prince, August, one of Frederick the Great's more interesting nephews, and a second cousin of Louise's husband, Frederick William III. He was a career soldier who helped reform the Prussian army after its paralyzing defeats at Jena and Auerstedt (1806) and fought bravely in many battles against Napoleon, finally at Waterloo. He was also romantically ardent enough to fall in love with Juliette Récamier when they met at Madame de Staël's salon at Coppet in 1807. Their plans to marry were thwarted, but she gave him the Gérard painting as a keepsake.
Conquering hero standing in front of his greatest trophy, Mme Récamier by Gérard. This portrait of August by Krüger, c.1817, shows him a decade after his courtship. Nationalgalerie Berlin. Image source: Wikipedia

Part Five
JOSEPHINE by Prud'hon
Painter: Pierre-Paul Prud'hon. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Marie Josèph Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (1763 -1814), the first wife of Napoleon, who insisted she be called Joséphine, from 1796 until their divorce in 1810, created Empress in 1804, painted by Proud'hon c.1805 communing gracefully with nature and the antique. Having started her career in aristocratic French society as a gold-digger from a Creole family, and successfully capitalising on her sexual charm and financial astuteness during the social upheavals of the Revolution and Directoire, her liaison with Napoleon was a marriage of convenience in which she played the role of gracious Empress with sophistication and good taste.

Her outdoor pose should not be dismissed entirely as affectation: the great love of Joséphine's life was flowers, especially roses, and her gardens at Malmaison were some of the most admired in history. She was a serious horticulturist, who cultivated over two hundred and fifty species of plants. 

Rosa Bifera Macrocarpa by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Josephine's appointed artist of her botanical collection,1811. Coloured engraving Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

The two vases commissioned by Queen Louise from the Koenigliche Porzellan-Manufactur in Berlin as an official state present for Joséphine  were decorated with painted views of the gardens and hothouse at Malmaison, in recognition of the prestige that they had brought to France aswell as of the personal delight that the empress and her family took in them.

In Antoine-Jean Gros' stiffly executed but richly symbolic portrait of Joséphine in 1808, everything that she most treasured is celebrated. She is dressed in a light muslin gown, of the simplest Empire cut, with a richly decorated border at the hem, inspired by Middle Eastern textiles, elegantly set off by the saturated bright pink colour of one of her sumptuous cashmere shawls, standing in front of a window at Malmaison, with a view of her gardens in the distance, looking towards her right at a bust of her son Eugene by her first marriage to General de Beauharnais, while on her left, in an allusion to her daughter Hortense, is a vase of full-headed white hydrangea, called hortensia in French. 

Rose Pink: detail of Antoine-Jean Gros' portrait in oils of Joséphine at Malmaison
Josephine's enthusiasm for cultivating hydrangeas, that had been introduced to France and England during the 18th century from China and the Americas, helped make them fashionable. The beloved daughter Hortense had been sacrificed to her step-father Napoleon's dynastic ambitions in a loveless union with his younger brother Louis, for which she was rewarded by becoming Queen Consort of Holland from 1806 to 1810, and mother of the future Emperor Napoleon III.

Joséphine's taste in interior decoration also transcended fashion, celebrated in Gérard's portrait of her on a luxuriously upholstered, minimalistically designed L-shaped sofa of 1801.

The empress of good taste, by Gérard, 1801. Oil on canvas, 178 x 174 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.  Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Part Six
Sculptor: Canova. Galleria Borghese, Rome. Image source: Web Gallery of Art
In Canova's marble sculpture of 1804-08 that epitomizes neo-classical nude beauty, Napoleon's hedonistic sister Pauline, Princess Borghese (1780 -1825), is portrayed as Venus, reclining on an equally finely shaped sofa. Notorious for her promiscuity which was on a classically Roman scale of its own, and disobedient to Napoleon like all his siblings, she was the only one who was loyal to him during his exile on Elba.

Part Seven

Young Woman Drawing. Metropoliltan Museum of Art, New York. Image source: Wikipedia
 Unknown Heroine
For a long time after this painting was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum, it was assumed proficient enough to be the work of a big-name male artist like David, even though the gentle treatment and wistful mood, and the rather flat modelling of the face and foot, are incompatible with his recognized work. Art historians now usually attribute this painting to Marie-Denise Villers (1774-1821) and, gratifying our cut-and-dried need for a name and a history, believe that it is a self-portrait. The sitter's identification, and whether she is sketching us or herself, does not add to the imaginative suggestiveness of the picture, or of the picture within the picture, framed by the window pane. 

Villers was one of three sisters who were all artists, the post-Revolution successors of the distinguished female Rococo painters of Marie-Antoinette's court, Anne Vallayer-Coster, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun.  Young Woman Drawing has also been attributed to the Romantic painter Constance Marie Charpentier, a pupil of David, and the sitter as Mlle Charlotte du Val d'Ognes.

In this harmoniously balanced composition, first exhibited in the Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1801, the artist, whoever she was, softens neoclassical starkness with diffused light and the allusion to the romantic parallel world of the lovers on the bridge outside. The combination of cool restraint and the direct appeal to the spectator in the candidly searching gaze of the girl makes Young Woman Drawing one of the most arresting images of empowered femininity hanging in the early modern art collection of the Met or any other major gallery.