2018-19: Art in an Age of Revolutions
The period between 1760 and 1860 was an eventful one in the history of Europe, in which the conditions for art production underwent many changes. Its early years were those of the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, which showed itself in art as emphases on realism and on subject-matter to engage the mind, often taken from classical antiquity. Autocratic monarchies were challenged by the new thinking, leading to the French Revolution of 1789 and subsequent uprisings. Liberty Leading the People (right) by Delacroix refers to that of 1830. In parallel were the effects of the Industrial Revolution led by Britain and reactions to them, leading in art to Romanticism and to a greater appreciation of the natural world that was expressed in landscape painting.
This introduction is structured around a representative sample of the artworks to be considered. Click on a picture if you would like to enlarge it. There's an option to look at all of the enlargements without returning to the text.
The Academicians of the Royal Academy is a group portrait by Zoffany (1772, left, detail) of the RA’s 36 founder members in the setting of its life-drawing room. The training of students was based on studies of classical sculpture and of the male nude. The presence of two models in the picture meant that the two women members were only represented by portraits on the wall. The Death of General Wolfe by West (1771, right) was innovative in presenting a relatively recent event - the 1759 Battle of Quebec – in the manner of a traditional history painting with a biblical or classical subject.
The Oath of the Horatii (1784, left) by David tells a story from the early days of ancient Rome. Uncompromising directness, economy and tension make this painting a quintessential example of the severe style known as Neoclassicism. Theseus and the Centaur (1804-19, right), a marble sculpture by Canova, is based on a story from classical mythology in a style inspired by sculptures of antiquity. The fight symbolizes human values overcoming lower appetites. The stable geometrical arrangement provides a sense of balance and harmony within which the violent action is set.
The Morning Walk by Gainsborough (1785, left, detail) features a well-dressed, high society couple on a stroll through their parkland in the manner of a 'conversation piece'. Light feathery brushstrokes create a sense of movement and liveliness. Self-Portrait with her Daughter by Vigée-LeBrun (1786, right) is the kind of painting at which the artist excelled, a sentimental image of maternity with a soft demure effect. Vigée-LeBrun was the most successful woman artist of the period, elected to the French Royal Academy thanks to being a favourite of Queen Marie Antoinette.
The Sick Rose (1794, left) is one of Blake’s Songs of Experience, a collection of hand-coloured prints featuring his poems with a general theme of asking why the world has so much evil in it. The floral decoration surrounding the text complements the words, as seen in medieval illuminated manuscripts. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799, right) is one of Goya’s prints in his Los Caprichos series, influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution. The figure can be argued to represent the artist, showing how imagination can run riot when decoupled from reason.
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by David (1801, left) represents the subject as an inspirational military leader, how he wanted to be seen rather than his actual mountain crossing. On a rearing horse, he points above the summits to the sky as if to a supposedly glorious future. The Colossus by Goya (1810, right) was painted in Spain after the brutal invasion of the country by Napoleon’s army. The realism of the refugees fleeing to escape danger is blended with the fantastic, the giant with his fists in a threatening posture, perhaps symbolizing the spirit of the Spanish people.
Napoleon Visiting the Battlefield of Eylau by Gros (1808, left), another painting with a political purpose, depicts the aftermath of a bloody battle that turned out to be futile. The terrible human cost could not be hidden from the French people, but Napoleon, by now Emperor, is falsely presented as having come to people’s aid. The Third of May, 1808 by Goya (1814, right) is a chilling image of an atrocity of war, Spanish patriots being shot by Napoleon’s soldiers the morning after an uprising. While the artist shows the rebels as martyrs, he also shows that their uprising failed to achieve anything.
Turner’s Dido Building Carthage (1815, left) was inspired by the French landscapist Claude and has his typical sun in the centre suffusing light throughout. Turner integrates his buildings and figures more closely with their surroundings, giving more expression to the wonder of nature. Wanderer above the Mists (1818, right) by the German landscapist Friedrich shows a man with his back to us, contemplating a prospect of mountains and rocks emerging from a layer of cloud. The painting is a private and personal encounter of an individual with nature, a quintessential example of the Romanticism.
The Raft of the Medusa by Gericault (1819, left) depicts a controversial contemporary event on the monumental scale of a major history painting. The work publicized the scandal of a shipwreck in which passengers were abandoned at sea on a raft and only a few survived. Constable’s Hay Wain (1821, right) depicts an East Anglian scene that the artist knew well, with a horse-drawn hay wagon crossing a river. Our eye is attracted to explore the picture and discover details that add interest. The naturalism comes from close observation and effects of light and shadow suggest the transient qualities of the scene.
The Apotheosis of Homer by Ingres (1827, left) depicts the legendary Greek author being honoured by great writers and artists of history. Ingres’ Neoclassicism in this painting clashed head-on at the Paris Salon with the Romanticism of his rival Delacroix, seen at its extreme in The Death of Sardanapalus (1827, right). An autocratic king facing military defeat had ordered the destruction of all his possessions and the massacre of his entire household, including himself.
Spatial coherence is sacrificed in a way that contributes to the sense of maddened confusion and destructive energy.
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831, left) is the culmination of Constable’s several depictions of Salisbury, a view of the Cathedral with the river Avon in the foreground. The sky goes beyond meteorological truth to create a more dramatic and universal appeal. Experience is heightened into visual poetry. The Fighting Temeraire (1839, right) is typical of Turner’s late paintings in making actual shapes appear dissolved in a pool of brilliant colour, shimmering with light. This painting pays tribute to a famous old warship, while the tug is a vivid symbol of the modern world.
The Stonebreakers by Courbet (1849, left) enlists our sympathy for two road workers engaged in mindless hard labour, challenging convention by its large size for such a subject. Such French Realism can be compared with the Pre-Raphaelite aim of 'truth to nature', as seen in Millais’ Ophelia (1852, right). He painted the landscape background in the open air, accurately in obsessive detail - foliage is in as sharp a focus as is Shakespeare’s tragic young woman. The bright colours make the image seem beyond the ordinary, while Courbet stays realistically earthbound to the lives of two luckless men.