Friday, December 20, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 12)

Nature's beauty was not its only characteristic to receive the praise of the Romantics.  They viewed nature as the ultimate power in the world, a kind of deity or earthly representation of the heavenly throne in might, majesty, and truth.  It's hard to describe a love for nature, but it is something which, I think, most people can easily enough understand.  Nature is a powerful, awesome force that is worthy of humankind's respect; but for the Romantics, reverential views toward nature took on pseudo-spiritual qualities.  Thomas Cole's epic series, called The Course of the Empire, comes across didactically, almost like a sermon.
The series was painted in the 1830s by American painter Thomas Cole.  It is a series of canvases that follow a linear storyline about the progression of time and, through it, man's brevity and nature's constancy.  Each image in the series has a title, explaining the timeline of this "course."  In order, they are: 1. Savage State, 2. Pastoral State, 3. Consummation of the Empire, 4. Destruction, 5. Desolation.
       1. Savage State

       2. Pastoral State

       3. Consummation of the Empire

       4. Destruction

       5. Desolation

The Romantics had a fear that increased industrialism would lead to a modern dystopia; and that machines would replace man.  They feared the opening of steel factories and mills; their polluting influence on nature was viewed as a kind of "rape of the land."  The mechanization of mankind through industrialism, the mindless production of materials for socioeconomic, consumerist ends, was the pervading dread of the Romantics, and paintings like this—of Nature taking back what's hers—are good examples of the deification of nature during this time.  In Thomas Cole's series, nature is incorruptible, unbeatable, and eternal; nature is God.  When the later Victorians came and "killed off" nature, so to speak, questions of the existence of God immediately followed, and what Matthew Arnold described as the withdrawal of faith brought us into the Modern era.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 11)

One prominent English landscape painter was John Constable.  He wanted to paint the sky, meadows, hills, and streams as the eye actually sees them.  To produce this realistic recreation of what he saw, he kept a small sketchbook during his walks through the fields.  His paintings of countryside landscapes are colorful, calm, and peacefully inviting.  A popular painter during his time, he was commissioned by several patrons to produce artworks representing their own estates.  One such patron, his father's friend, asked him to paint his estate at Wivenhoe Park, in Essex.  Constable's own vision of the estate was painted like so.
You can hardly even see the estate; it's all about the natural, pastoral landscape around the house.  Half of the entire canvas is just clouds!  This fixation on the beauty and perfection of nature is a very Romantic concept; and while it was readily accepted by many, some on the more traditional side still would have preferred to see the estate.  Which do you like better: looking at the house or the natural setting around it?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 10)

Another big part of the Romantic Period in art (and actually, probably the biggest part) was its focus on Nature.  You will recall the ideals of nature's purity and goodness as expressed during the Enlightenment by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (as well as others).  The ideas of the natural sanctity of pastoral landscapes, untainted by the establishment of the rich and industrious landowning class, became especially popular after the French Revolution, when the aristocracy was overthrown and the common man took to power (ha, but not really).  The common man, thought to be closer to nature and, consequently, more innocent of the corruptive influence of society, began to be pictured more—again, in hindsight of the Revolution.  But one of the most common phenomena of Romanticism is an extolment of nature and the beauty of its unpolluted holiness.  Romantic landscape paintings are beautiful and seek to praise the pastoral setting they depict.  These subjects also took inspiration from a period in history when the continent of North America was still being explored, settled, and established.  Explorers like Lewis and Clark and John Muir were discovering beautiful landscapes that, once painted, could inspire more people to move out West.  The "New World," as it had been termed so long ago, was still largely "new" at this point; much of the land was still to be domesticated.  As settlers learned to find a living for themselves in pioneer territory, news spread not just through America but all across the Western world that man was again connecting to nature in a new and fresh way.  The enticing, pastoral beauty of the American frontier certainly sparked the interest and imagination of the world, and when gold was discovered in California in 1848, interest (as you can imagine) only increased.  Nature was seen as an altogether glorious thing; and the idea of tabula rasa, a clean slate, attracted many people to "go West" and start afresh with a new life in nature.  This, too, was held to be a very Romantic ideal.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 9)

After travelling through Morocco, Tangier, and Algiers in 1832, Delacroix became newly inspired.  His later works invoked these new, exotic settings which Delacroix loved to paint so much, and combined them with another of the artist's favorite motifs: dramatic action.  He completed The Lion Hunt toward the end of his life, and it marked one of the most artistically important accomplishments of his life.  In it we see the dominant theme of action and the exotic setting and subject matter no doubt inspired by the artist's own travels.  Color was the most important element in the painting for Delacroix.  Emotion, instantly evident, bursts from the chaotic scene, and our eye darts across the canvas, this way and that, as swiftly as we can imagine the figures in the scene must have been moving.  The fierce moment of conflict—the thick of the battle—is marvelously captured on the men's faces, but notice how the painting's wavy lines and incoherent geometrical construction lends to its sense of motion and kinetic action.  We almost can't see the faces of the men and can't judge some of their expressions because things are moving too fast.  This technical concept will be adopted more thoroughly in the years to come.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 8)

At the age of 33, our Romantic artist par excellence suddenly died from a fall off of a horse, leaving his friend Eugène Delacroix to take up the Romantic Movement after he died, even though not everyone liked him.  His famous painting of Liberty Leading the People has, even through to today, come to define the Romantic vision of the French Revolution of 1830 (not to be confused with the 1789 Revolution).  This is so much more than a political painting.  A magnificent homage to the overthrow of Charles X, this painting is nothing if not Romantic.
A pile of bloodied corpses lays across the ground on the bottom half of the painting, the beaten bodies of military officials on the right and, on the left, one sacred cadaver stretched out in the sunlight with his pure, white garment and the naked flesh of his humanity both being blessed from heaven above with the lighted splendor of the sun shining down upon his ended life and the cause for which it was given: the glory of death.  One among the pile leans weakly forward and looks up at the spectacle which immediately bursts out of the canvas.  A woman, clothed in majestic, golden, flowing robes and with the full light of radiant truth behind her, stands tall (the tallest in the scene) over the sprawling death underneath her, the slain gendarmes and the one, nobly sacrificed martyr who fought for the right side.  She is Liberty, and she carries a musket rifle in her left hand, as well as holds up a splendid French flag in her right.  Beside her is a poor boy, of all warriors, with patches sewn on to his pants and a poor man's cap, fighting wildly with two pistols, one in each hand.  He even has his mouth open, no doubt shouting fierce war cries to further express his courage and determination in the face of battle.  Recognizing him as not much more than a child, we instantly fall sympathetic to his cause because of the youthful innocence and purity of his age—and how much more are we to join him since he is so passionate!  On the other side, a wealthy man, too, fights for the same cause as the poor boy.  This is the aristocrat in the top hat, pointing his rifle forward to show the enemy no mercy—his image bears striking resemblance to that of Delacroix himself and may in fact serve the role as a cameo self-portrait.  Behind him, another man of the lower-class with a holstered pistol and a drawn scimitar charges forward; behind him: the entire mob of French peasants, farmers, landowners, rebels, and revolutionaries, all with drawn weapons and banners proudly displaying La Tricolore.  Way far back in the distance behind these, we can see the cathedral of Notre Dame being overtaken, with French flags raised along its towers and buttresses.  Even above, notice the three colors with which the artist paints the very sky above: I see bleu, blanc, et rouge.  Leading all of this—the boy, the rich man, the entire French mob, and the overthrow of the whole city of Paris (and, in turn, the entire French nation)—is Liberty, equally as beautiful as she is fearsome and mighty.  She walks barefoot over the strewn corpses like the Messiah, Christ, who stepped barefoot over the Sea of Galilee to save His drowning disciple, Peter.  We see a stunning profile image of her face as she glances back to her loyal followers and ushers them, with the flag of their own beloved country, forward.  The crimson sash across her waist is symbolic of the loss of life which the fight for their cause will entail—revolutions are bloody affairs; but for what cause and what more noble emblem would you not risk all for the victory?  And the cause is: Democracy.  To overthrow the absolute monarch and institute a democratic government alike to that of the Ancient Greeks—that would be freedom, or liberty, indeed.  Liberty herself invokes reference to Ancient Greece in the sculpturesque uncovering of her chest, very much similar to the Nike of Samothrace, whose breasts project outward in a heaving inhale of graceful might and vitality.  But in Delacroix's painting, Liberty's bosom is bared to display her honest-natured, maternal humanity.  She is pictured not just as the leader of her people, but as their mother, who will ever more fiercely watch out for her own: Liberty will guide her followers safely and supply them with all the strength they need.  And all of this is just a brief overview of this iconic painting.  Propaganda—perhaps, yes; romanticized propaganda—yeah, it is.  Nevertheless, what a painting!
I said Romanticism was unconcerned with political propaganda, having adopted their larger focus onto human elements of pathos and emotionalism.  While a painting like Liberty Leading the People deals itself heavily in a political subject (a revolution), its more everlasting and more quintessentially Romantic overtones do rest with a very honest and emotional look at people.  Its propaganda elements are only ankle-deep, for anyone, loyalist or revolutionary, French or British, can look at this work and receive an emotional reaction from it.  The little boy and Liberty's bared breasts are symbolic of these characters' humanness, their childhood or motherhood, etc.  These symbolic images are commonly understood by all humanity, and in that sense the work is not merely a painting of a single historical event or a contextualized political philosophy.  This is a painting of humanity, of people rather than politics and revolutionaries rather than revolutions.  Hypothetically speaking, even if I'm opposed to the French Revolution of 1830, I can still look at this painting and identify with the human spirit depicted herein: the heart of the individual to fight for his cause and the heart of the united masses to stand up against tyranny and oppression in general.  It's universal because the human spirit is universal.  That is the Romantic ideology of it, at least.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 7)

Perhaps this ever-changing movement of the times influenced the Romantic style, which often included diagonal design, twisting figures, strong emotion, and dramatic use of light.  We see this best in Théodore Géricault's masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa.  This painting, produced in 1819, signaled the birth of a new art style in France.
The Raft of the Medusa was based on a real event in which a French ship, the Medusa, wrecked and was abandoned by her crew.  Those crewmembers who could not fit into the inadequate lifeboat quickly built a raft of their own and escaped the sinking vessel.  These men (some estimated 149 passengers) drifted at sea for almost two weeks without food or clean drinking water.  When they were finally found, there were only 15 survivors left.  During their two-week voyage, many of the crew had starved to death, drowned, or committed suicide.  These shipwrecked men were brought to the very limits of what human nature can bear: starvation, desolation, dementia.  It is reported that the men even sunk to cannibalism.
Nothing but the most dramatic depiction of this event could do for a painting—or, at least, such was the way the great Romantic painter Géricault saw it.  The Raft of the Medusa displays a theatrically staged scene of epic emotional depth and powerful imagery.  We see naked bodies strewn across the hard wood and tossed against the cold sea, some discolored with sickness, others faceless, maimed, and inhuman-looking.  One man poises against the lifeless corpse of his neighbor, deep in thought, with a hard face that is covered in shadow, no doubt contemplating the deep questions of human suffering which such an occasion would generate.  One can see reference to the solemnest of subjects, the Crucifixion, in the tattered arms that stretch across the raft's wooden boards.  Agony, despair, death—this painting is a gritty tableau of human pain and emotion.  The dramatic lighting sets the mood of our thoughts when we look at it.  A major diagonal (from the lower left to the upper right of the painting) carries our eyes through the scene, ranging in between places of despair and hope.  At the upper right we see men looking ahead and stretching their arms toward something they see on the horizon (probably the rescuing ship).  For those men's faces shadowed from our view, the display of human emotion is expressed in the stormy sea and dramatic sky.  Huge, billowing clouds drift across the sky much as the raft drifts across the surface of the water; and great waves swell up in fury no doubt equaling the passion of the men through this unimaginable circumstance.  The painting reflects the style of Rubens and Michelangelo, but it showcases a contemporary event as it actually happened, rather than a scene from the Classical past.  Of course, this image is no realistic snapshot to be completely trusted.  We can see that Géricault's painting is heavily infused with emotion, but this emotion is different than propaganda, like the works of David.  Romantic emotionalism, unconcerned with political causes, instead speaks to deeper matters of the heart, the broader spectrum of human emotion, the pathos of mankind.  All of this is most archetypally exemplified in Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, making it a staple work of Romantic art.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 6)

Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815 and later exiled to the island of Elba.  He died in 1821, and France returned to the monarchy system (with some changes).  Louis XVIII took power and reigned for a whole decade during the Bourbon Restoration, and it would not be until 1830 that the nation would rebel against its current absolute monarch, Charles X, and institute a constitutional monarchy.  In 1848, revolution in France would break out again (and all across Europe), and the nation would elect Bonaparte's nephew and heir, Napoleon III, as president of the French Second Republic.  Three years later, Napoleon III would establish the Second French Empire.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 5)

Francisco de Goya was an official court portraitist painter in Spain who had a promising career ahead of him in the late 1780s and early 1790s, but then the unthinkable happened.  The artist went deaf by the year 1793, and his condition left him increasingly meditative and introverted.  After the French invasion of Spain under the leadership of Napoleon in 1808, Goya witnessed the brutality of warfare first-hand.  Shortly after, his wife of almost forty years died, and in his middle age, the artist was left alone, debilitated, and scarred by the wartime atrocities which he could not erase from his mind.  He took to isolation, spending hours by himself in total seclusion, and during the last decade of his life, his art changed.  A new spirit was awakened in him, and his art turned very dark.
When Goya became more bitter and disillusioned in his old age, he focused more on subjects not found in the real world, such subjects as can only be found in the deepest recesses of the tormented human psyche.  He attempted to show these supernatural objects in demonstration of his otherwise inexpressible feelings and thoughts—perhaps the beginning of Expressionism (which comes much later, and which we still live in largely today).  Others did not always understand his dreams and visions, but Goya didn't mind rebelling against all formalities, given his own neurosis, spawned from his tragic life.  His inspiration now came almost purely from himself; and as an old, lonely, deaf man, battered in his mind from the military captivity of his own country, he drew inspiration that was only of the darkest and most macabre nature.  Some of these "Black Paintings" are quite nightmarish to look at, gruesome and horrific, and perhaps they should only be viewed under the context of psychoanalysis.  Some elements of human psychology cannot, and should not, be explained through artistic theory.  (Unfortunately, this distinction is often crossed in Expressionist art philosophy, but we are too early to get into that just yet.)
To look at just one of these late works of the artist, Goya's The Giant is among the most famous.  This apparently simple etching is full of dark meaning.  That it is etched so simplistically, with a very primal hand, almost lends to its eeriness.  A mysterious and unidentified form sits on top of a bare, unmarked bed of land that has been scratched and scraped with harsh strokes of the artist's hand.  Above this earth, the night sky with its glimmering moon and stars shines above.  The blackness at the top caps it all, as if to suggest itself as the highest authority over everything in the print: the Unknown.  The monster sits on top of the world in a position of dominance, looking huge and menacing.  While the rest of the world sleeps under the cover of moonlight, this figure sits quietly alone, musing to itself or peacefully slumbering—what thoughts or reveries cross its mind we shiver to guess.  But something has awoken or startled it.  It turns its head—and our imagination is left to fill in the rest.  The awakening of a monstrous colossus in the night is certainly a motif from the subconscious world of nightmares and dark dreams, but the subject may also be understood to represent much nearer realities, and more terrifying.  The giant could be a symbol of war.  Or it could be simply a frightening incarnation of Goya's own somber forecast of the future.
You can see how this type of artwork is uniquely independent of its contemporary technique, and perhaps, having looked at Goya's personal life, we can understand why that is.  But this is not exactly Romantic art, though emotionalism is involved here.  I have to bring up Goya because he lived during this time period, but we can discuss his artistic style and impact on the art world better as we go along.  For now, we'll get back to the Romantics.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 4)

Francisco de Goya is considered a bridge between art of the past and art of the present because he was the first to so uniquely ignore traditions like realism (lowercase "r").  He took his inspiration from his own imagination and set a revolutionary precedent over artists to come.  A man who was way ahead of his time, Goya does not really fit into any stylistic period of art history, one might say; nevertheless, much of his work did take inspiration from Romantic art theory.  To observe his artistic style, however, is to take a look at something that is unique to itself, a kind of exception to the rules, and something only to be understood when understanding the man himself.  Let's take a look.
The Duchess of Alba was one of the wealthiest persons in Spain.  Her eccentric personality led the public to hold in its eye a rather controversial opinion of her.  This general disfavor was not just based upon her manner or her private life but more largely on her scandalous behavior in public.  The story goes that she had invited the queen to a ball but had sent spies to the queen's palace to find out what gown she was going to wear.  She then had all her servants dress identically as the queen.  Naturally, the queen was so insulted by this prank that she rebuked the prankster, and the Duchess of Alba was then promptly exiled from Madrid.
It has been rumored that the duchess and Goya were lovers, but it is not known for sure exactly what the extent of their relationship was like.  Goya's portraits of her (of which there are several) all picture her delicately and beautifully.  Here she is seen looking straight at the viewer with large, black eyes.  She wears two rings bearing the names Goya and Alba, implying a union between the two.  Whether they were or were not lovers, however, it would seem that the duchess eventually left him anyway, and when Goya's painting was cleaned after his death, the word "solo" was found inscribed in the sand before the artist's name at the bottom.  The duchess, you will notice, is pointing to it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 3)

But as time progressed, Napoleon's regime became increasingly less "heroic," and the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya took to exploiting the more atrocious side (and no doubt the more accurate side) to the story, producing a little propaganda of his own.  In a controversial indictment of Napoleon's cruelty, Goya created a painting memorializing the victims of his troops' brutality.  The painting's title, The Third of May, 1808, stands out as a direct reference to the real, contemporary historical event.
After the French invasion of Spain, an insurrectionist group arose to fight back for their homeland.  The rebels were quickly defeated, and the French soldiers took them captive, disarmed them, and executed them.  These were common citizens, not military captains, aristocrats, or people of political authority.
Goya's painting has a black backdrop and is only lit by a lantern placed on the ground.  The Spanish prisoners have all the light shining directly on them, symbolizing God's presence with them and their cause; and each illumined face has a different expression of fear and sadness.  None of the soldiers' faces are seen.  They are stripped of their humanity as they all lean forward, single-file, pointing their bayonets and preparing to fire.  They are not really pictured as human beings but more like heartless robots, all identically lined up to perform the inhumane act.  We see the grossness of their deeds already committed on the far left in the image of the dead bodies piled on the ground.  Next to them, a priest prays for mercy, a sign that he is a devout man not deserving of such cruel treatment.  All of these men are helpless civilians about to be coldheartedly executed; the scene stirs great emotions in us as the viewer.  But the painting's emphasis is on a single rebel in particular, who is seen clothed in pure white with his arms outstretched.  He is completely vulnerable, baring his chest (and his heart, no doubt as spotless as his shirt) to his executors and holding out his arms in a likeness to the crucified Christ.  His hand is even marked with the stigmata of the sacrificial Lamb of God.  The painting passionately commemorates the death of these Spanish patriots, imagining them as martyrs and saints and imagining their executioners as ruthless, tyrannical animals.  Goya viewed war as only destructive.  His painting shows only death and suffering and no heroism or honor.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 2)

For one thing, Romanticism took from the Neoclassical attitude of seriousness adopted after the Revolution.  A further backlash against the licentious lewdness of the Rococo Period, Romanticism (as we mean it here) was a style of art that portrayed dramatic and exotic subjects perceived with strong feelings.  This heightened sense of emotion is one of the key differences in Romantic art.  Neoclassical paintings like Ingres' Apotheosis of Homer was painted flatly and linearly, you will recall, with not a whole lot of bursting emotion.  Romantic paintings breathe emotion.  They also shift their focus primarily onto the present, instead of looking back to the Classical past (again, as Ingres' Apotheosis painting did).  These paintings often deal with current events but portray them in the fashion one would portray an ancient, epic event of Classical Greek or Roman mythology—dramatically.  Romanticism sees all of contemporary life through the Classical lens of epic drama and passionate emotionalism.  The changes can be heard in music at this time as easily as the difference between Mozart and Beethoven.
In one sense, then, the court paintings of Jacques-Louis David could be considered Romantic—and they very often are.  I placed them under the Neoclassical Period of art because: (1) that is how I was taught; and (2) it helps one to better see the immediate withdrawal away from the Rococo style after the French Revolution.  But it is true that David's paintings of Napoleon are as much Romantically inspired as they are Neoclassically styled.  His paintings were of contemporary events, like the emperor's coronation; and they were often shown in dramatic fashion, like his painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps.  Romanticism and Neoclassicism share much in common, so I will pick up where we left off and return to another David painting, now under the category of Romantic art.
Just after Napoleon's Syrian Campaign, his troops won a decisive victory over the Ottoman Turks at Jaffa in Israel.  After the conquest, many of Napoleon's men were infected with Bubonic plague and deemed incurable.  Their emperor had them poisoned to prevent further spread of the disease, but in so doing he fell into disfavor with many among the general public (understandably so, I think).  To counter the negative sentiment towards his name, Napoleon turned once more to his favorite painter in order to generate some more promotional propaganda.  This time, we see Napoleon at a "pest house" (or plague colony) of infected Bubonic plague victims.  The highly contagious nature of the disease made it necessary to isolate those suffering from it to prevent further contamination.  It would have been considered absolutely dangerous to enter into a plague house such as we see here, but Napoleon stands upright and calm.  It would have been considered even more dangerous not to have a cloth or handkerchief covering one's mouth while among the colony.  It would have been considered complete suicide to touch one of the sick, but Napoleon, with no glove or cloth to protect him, stretches out his helping hand like the great Healer, Christ Himself.  Meanwhile we can see the city of Jaffa burning in the background with a French flag staked over it, but this is conveniently pushed away from the scene at present.  What artist Jacques-Louis David has painted is an extraordinary image of Napoleon as a fearless general, a compassionate leader, a helper of the weak, and an inspiration to his men, a great emperor, and no less great a man than the Son of Man.  Propaganda makes heroes.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 1)

Lest we find ourselves completely out of the historical order of the 19th century, it is vital that I point out here and now that history is rarely an exact, mathematical study.  Periods of history blend together.  This is easily enough understood, I trust.  It isn't like the world was still living in agrarianism in 1799, and as soon as the calendar turned to 1800, then the Industrial Age began—not at all.  Art is the same way; our periods will increasingly begin to blend and mesh together.  Not to worry: just keep in mind that other things are continually happening during a single period of art.  I think the French Revolution is one of the greatest examples of an absolute and immediate turn-around in the art world.  After 1789, Rococo art met its end almost immediately, given the violent extremity of the situation in France—almost.  The style still was continued on here and there.  American artist Edward Hicks's painting Peaceable Kingdom, painted in 1826, for example, still demonstrates the aristocratic ideology of Rococo-style art.
This Post-Revolutionary painting is also an example of propaganda in that it showcases European supremacy.  On the left, Europeans make peace with the Native Americans; and on the right, little children, pure and clothed in white, make peace with otherwise savage animals.  The two sides are correlative: the Europeans are pictured as innocent babies learning to tame the allegedly uncivilized and savage Native American beasts.  This is a very white supremacist message, and one which honors the upper-class aristocracy over the common man (or Indian)—a Rococo-inspired theme.  I always thought it was kind of a weird painting.  Look at the wildness in the animals' eyes, showing how dangerous and undomesticated they truly are; but the babies are calmly sitting nearby and even petting the beasts.
Paintings like this continue to be produced, but noticeably less after the French Revolution and, eventually, not at all.  So, we see a crossing-over with Rococo into Neoclassical art.  The timeline is not always precisely in sequence.  In fact, one of the chief works credited to the Neoclassical Period of art was painted by David before the Revolution: his Oath of the Horatii.  We furthermore see a combination of Neoclassical art with Romantic art.  We have arrived in our study of art history at the Romantic Period now, but that does not mean that Neoclassical styles have altogether expired.  In fact, Romanticism (capital R) took much of its inspiration from Neoclassical theory, and these qualities can be seen in many of the paintings we are about to look at.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 9)

It is no surprise, then, that Napoleon commissioned David to paint a commemorative work depicting the emperor's own coronation.  Here is an indelible scene: Napoleon, who had promised to serve the people, crowning himself emperor.  The man would go on to conquer half of Europe and become one of history's most infamous dictators, but here we see this brief moment of time before all of that happens; foreboding, isn't it?  The image of a man crowning himself is perhaps an ominous image, but it is definitely one for us to remember when considering the big political questions of our time.  It's a magnificent painting, over thirty feet long and twenty feet high.  And the artist gives no small attention to detail in this enormously painted scene which is so full of radiant colors and brilliantly clad courtiers.  Jacques-Louis David's painting of Napoleon's coronation is one of my favorite paintings, so I could spend a long time discussing it—the abundance of interesting characters in the scene, the significance of each individual's placement in the scene and what they're holding or doing, the artistic approach to producing the scene's atmosphere, the colors used, which figures are painted taller than others and why, facial expressions, hidden persons in the crowd, et cetera—but for now we must keep going.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 8)

Anyway, that is the type of style we see in Neoclassical art.  Meanwhile, Napoleon, as newly self-appointed Emperor of France, hires Jacques-Louis David as his official court painter and commissions him to paint a number of flattering portraits.  One such famous portrait the artist made was of Napoleon in His Study, which made use of vertical lines to exaggerate the emperor's height.  In reality, Napoleon was a very short man, but the vertical length of this painting makes us constantly gaze up and down like an elevator changing floors.  The column on the left, the grandfather clock on the right, the table leg behind, and the chair leg in front of him are all vertical lines, pointing our eye, in a way, all along the height of the work.  Napoleon himself, clothed in white, appears vastly larger than he almost assuredly would have looked in person.  That is one reason why this painting is another example of propaganda; it seeks to impress upon us an exaggerated and biased image of Napoleon as a great emperor.  Also, look at the clock; it's four in the morning!  But Napoleon has his candle lit and is hard at work in his study even at this hour, shown to be toiling far into the night for the well-being of his people.  David certainly knew how to paint his emperor well.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 7)

Neo-Classical art, arriving by no mere coincidence simultaneously alongside a period of national revolutions and political uprisings, sought to revive the ideals of Ancient Greek and Roman art.  The prefix "neo" means "new"; so you can think of this as "New Classical" art.  It is characterized by balanced compositions, flowing contour lines, and noble gestures and expressions.  Artists looked back to Classical forms to express courage, sacrifice, and patriotism.  New governments, such as the one in America, took inspiration from older political models, like those from Ancient Greece and Rome (the idea of a "senate," for example), and in turn celebrated the re-birth, so to speak, of those Classical ideals in their art.  French Academies endorsed art based on Greece and Rome, and in fact Napoleon himself wanted to supersede the Roman Empire.  His reign as emperor effectively ended the Holy Roman Empire which had been governing since the Middle Ages and which was basically the successive extension of the Ancient Roman Empire itself.
Demonstrating this as clearly as possible for us is The Apotheosis of Homer, painted in 1827 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.  (An "apotheosis" is the elevation or exaltation of a person to the rank of god).  Homer, the great Greek poet, sits here in the place of honor, enthroned and being crowned by a figure representing the Nike of Samothrace.  The two women sitting on the steps (wearing orange, on the left, and green, on the right) are the Iliad and Odyssey.  Contrary to the former French Rococo style, which painted flowery and soft images, the artist here paints with harsh lines and rigidly geometric exactness in order to demonstrate the structural precision and symmetry of the artistic works from Ancient Greece and Rome.  Instead of natural, pastoral landscape scenery we transition back to the architectural façades of buildings like the Acropolis.  To adequately portray the Ancient Greeks' devotion to symmetry, use of line had to be employed properly, with great attention to structure and form.  For Ingres, it was the most important element in the painting.  Note that the austerely linear geometry lends greatly to the painting's feeling of gravity and solemnity.
This painting brings to mind Raphael's School of Athens, which was also Classically inspired.  It pictures an impressive assembly of immortals representing the arts.  This painting, like Raphael's Renaissance masterpiece, is an expansion of the Renaissance concept of sacra conversazione (in Italian, "sacred conversation").  A sacra conversazione was originally the idea behind many religious paintings of Heaven, where all the saints were pictured together in communion with each other and with their Lord, but the idea disseminated to more secular artists who painted great scenes of various important historical figures assembled in one location, like a party, for discussion and communion.  It is a gathering of history's greatest intellectuals, come together to discuss matters of art, philosophy, and politics.  The figures surrounding Homer in this painting are other poets, philosophers, and artists including: Phidias, Virgil, Fra Angelica, Aeschylus, Racine, Molière, Raphael, Dante, and Shakespeare.  The sacra conversazione concept is a fun one, because you can imagine in your own mind which historical figures you would like to have a conversation with if you could meet with anybody from the past.  Hmm…

Friday, November 22, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 6)

Napoleon is in office.  After his successful coup d'état overthrowing the French Directory in 1799, he hired a painter to commemorate his victory.  Since, Jacques-Louis David was a friend and admirer of Napoleon, he was commissioned to paint Napoleon's crossing of the Alps.
Let me take this moment to say that images are very powerful—that is why some images are kept hidden from us.  Images can engrain themselves in our head, etching deep into our memory and impressing upon our thoughts and emotions.  I did a quick Google search, and it appears that, statistically speaking, it has been estimated that about 65 percent of people are visual learners; but even so, regardless of percentages and Google search results, all humans react to things they see.  It is largely how we glean truth from any phenomena: by what we see.  And inasmuch as art (the kind which we are looking at) comprises itself most predominantly of images, art as propaganda can dramatically influence people; because an artist is an image creator.  Art can make people question their government.  An image can make a person cringe at the thought of warfare.  Propaganda makes heroes and villains.  Through images, populations can be swayed to becoming followers or enemies of rulers, governments, and belief systems.  It's very powerful stuff.
Here we see Napoleon Crossing the Alps.  The future emperor of France is sitting on a wild horse that is rearing up, but Napoleon appears calm, resolute, and determined.  He is most clearly in charge, and if he can tame a wild beast with such ease, what might he be able to do for the French government?  He points upward and onward, showing his courage and perseverance, and his black, penetrating eyes seem to contain all the authority and strength of a mighty warrior.  His cape flows in the wind elegantly, making him appear spectacular and huge.  He is the picture of stunning, dominating, and awe-inspiring grace.  What's more, light from above shines down on Napoleon, demonstrating God's favor on him.  The artist glorifies this man and this scene as something altogether epic and momentous.  Actually, Napoleon's troops took the Alps and led their leader, pictured here, through the region only after they had secured it; and I think he rode on a donkey.  You can see, then, how exaggerated this painting is and how it uses propaganda to support Napoleon.  But this is still a majestic painting, to say the least, and this was how the style of art changed after the Revolution.  Majesty, rather than frivolity, characterized the subjects of Post-Revolutionary paintings, and the period became one of Neoclassicism.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 5)

Another most immediately recognizable change seen in Post-Revolutionary art is its stark seriousness.  You can't get more opposite to Rococo.  Coming out of the licentiousness of the past age, the Neoclassics would turn to much more somber themes and serious paintings.  Remember Fragonard's The Swing?  Just two decades later, Jacques-Louis David painted this.
Dark, grim, not altogether colorful, and even somewhat macabre at first glance, this painting is of The Death of Marat.  David, as we know, was very much involved in politics.  He was the one who sketched the Oath of the Tennis Court and took part in the Revolution.  Jean-Paul Marat was a major figure of the French Revolution, a man of the people, and a person whom David looked up to.  In 1793, Marat was assassinated; he was stabbed to death in his bathtub at his home.  Marat suffered from a unique skin disease that required him to spend many hours soaking in his tub and wearing a towel wrapped around his head to further remedy the ailment.  The assassin, a young woman named Charlotte Corday, was caught, tried, and executed, and I learned that the actual bathtub in which the killing took place is said to be on display at the Musée Grévin in Paris.  Yuck.
David painted this as a tribute to the man.  The bottom inscription in French dedicates the painting to Marat.  As for the painting itself, this is a good example of propaganda, painted in such a way as to generate sympathy for the death of this noble-looking man.  His corpse lies over the side of the tub, his face half-smiling in peaceful wisdom and his hand holding up a note which describes in French how he must suffer for the betterment of society.  Rather than gruesome or gory, the painting shows a "clean" death without lots of blood so as to soften viewers to the scene, not appall them.  We see the assassin's knife left at the bottom of the tub, and we are meant to feel pity for this man.  The dramatic lighting makes him even almost sculpturesque.  Marat is like the Dying Gaul of Ancient Greek and Roman art history.  This painting seeks to make a martyr out of him and does so in a very Romantic way.  Romanticism is already beginning to arrive onto the art stage right now, but we will look at that art movement later as it becomes more prevalent.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 4)

Art did something after the French Revolution that it has continually done ever since and, actually, probably always has done.  After the Revolution, art became about propaganda.  Art went simple with direct messages (opposite of Rococo).  Post-Revolutionary art would eventually of course turn into Neoclassicism, but the immediate response, which we must look at first, was a shift from the carefree Rococo style of praising the aristocracy to a medium by which the revolutionary ideals of France's own current events could be spread.  Now, just so we're sure, propaganda is information or ideas purposely spread to influence public opinion.  Let's be clear.  Propaganda is always one-sided.  We are about to look at a series of paintings that fit well under the category of propaganda art.  These are not historical paintings, although they are of historical events.  The actual historical events they purport to describe happened in fact very differently.  We cannot trust art as a medium for truth; and I know this is a rather weighty concept that should be (and will be) treated more in the future, but it needs to be brought up now.  Naturally we are more discerning when judging facts from propaganda, but it never ceases to surprise me that historical articles—like, say internet articles—will post a painting of the event alongside the text, as if it were a snapshot.  Paintings, while certainly informative in their own way, should never be taken as the full and accurate picture.  Paintings—especially these paintings we're starting on now—require further historical insight and investigation; however, since I am writing about art history, not history, I will focus more on the paintings.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 3)

Now, we know what started the French Revolution, and we understand a little better what it meant in its historical context; but what did the Revolution mean to art?  Many artists, such as Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Antoinette's portraitist, had to flee France and did not return until peace was restored.  She continued to paint, but her portraits after the Revolution typically featured people with sad, fearful expressions, like her painting called The Bather and her famous portrait of Madame de la Châtre.  Her style had always included giving people large, expressive eyes in their paintings and making them look more attractive, but after the Revolution her paintings became filled with anxiety and woe.  Her sitters appear frightened of the world and insecure about the future.  In historical hindsight an observer might mark that these figures perhaps had good reason for their apprehension.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 2)

Less than a month later, a mob of angry and exacerbated peasants and farmers launched an attack in Paris against the city's chief executive building and symbol for the political authority of the royal family in France, the Bastille.  On July 14, 1789, French townsfolk stormed the Bastille and successfully captured it, effectively seizing the entire city.  The Archbishop of Bordeaux was hired to write a first draft of their "constitution," and by late August, the people of France had produced their Declaration on the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, asserting new limits to the power of the king.  Then, soon after, yet another mob of angry lower-class farmers marched on Versailles and attacked the lavish palace of the king, capturing him, and relocating him to be held hostage in Paris.  The whole nation was now under the control of the revolutionaries and plunged largely into anarchy until the populace united into a declared republic in 1792.
These first years of the French Revolution became known as the Reign of Terror for the exorbitant bloodshed which they produced.  Under Robespierre, an untold amount of people, from royals to aristocrats to ordinary lower-class men and women, were executed or killed either under the authority of the French Republic itself or in the Revolutionary Wars the nation-state engaged in after the execution of King Louis XVI.  Among them: Marie Antoinette, who was put on trial for treason, immorality, and even maternal abuse and was guillotined on October 16, 1793.  She was found guilty by a jury of nine men.
The Republic failed, the Terror ended, eventually Robespierre was himself executed, and new political organizations took control of France for a series of years until they were all overthrown and replaced with an imperial regime under the control of one man.  The First French Empire was declared by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804.  A few months later, in December of that same year, Napoleon crowned himself the Emperor of France and established his own reign over the next decade of French history.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 1)

In 1789 France was bankrupt.  The nation had been left in debt after the Seven Years' War and the American Revolutionary War.  The king's initial, answering decree to this dilemma was simply to increase taxes, but, clearly no economist himself, Louis XVI proved ineffective at establishing new taxation laws.  The taxes did not just rise higher, they shot dramatically upward.  Suddenly, the carefree aristocrats could no longer support their lavish lifestyles, while most peasants could not even afford food.  The rising complaint became the king's lack of concern for domestic matters.  Funding and military support had been so amply donated to the American Colonies over the past several years that France was itself at risk of collapsing into insurmountable debt.  The higher taxation that the king implemented to solve the problem only further infuriated the bourgeoisie, who quickly moved to skepticism over the effectiveness of their king, Louis XVI, in office.  The country was also suffering from an ongoing famine that led to a severe economic inflation.  Bread prices especially skyrocketed, and the first riots to break out in France among the lower-class masses dealt with this very issue.
But increasingly the nation's poor economic situation became a political issue.  Fed up on higher taxes, the French aristocracy began questioning the right of the king to absolute authority.  This had been an Enlightenment ideal (among its supporters had been Thomas Hobbes).  So, naturally an attack on their king's right to sovereignty meant not only a political struggle but an intellectual struggle as well, an ideological struggle, and even a philosophical one.  Unfortunately, circumstances were too intolerably bad to allow much time for heavy consideration over the subject—the subject which, though unspoken and indefinite, nevertheless pervaded the air: revolution—so the bureaucrats and members of the Third Estate near Versailles convened to debate and discuss the matter publically in conference.  (France did not, strictly speaking, have a parliament at this time, but neither was this a simple town meeting.  The Third Estate, briefly defined, was a societal order of lower-class people, represented by members who volunteered to appear in the Estates General, a series of ongoing political forum sessions similar to, but certainly not corresponding with, parliamentary assemblies.)  The debate was to be concerned with the nation's adoption of a constitution to replace the monarchical system of government hitherto practiced (and doubtless the idea for a constitutional government took inspiration from the American Revolution).  A constitution would limit the king's power and ensure a more stable government; but to what kind of problems would it lead?  And who would write the constitution for them?  These were all questions to be discussed in the assembly.
In late June, members of the Third Estate met in the city of Versailles to hold an Estates General assembly but were shocked to find the assembly house barred shut.  The king, fearing the growth of treacherous sentiment among the public, had the building locked and guarded, forbidding the citizens' entry into their own house of meeting.  Determined to enact this council, the five hundred plus attendees walked across the street to a nearby tennis court and met inside it.  The historic moment was commemorated in an unfinished drawing, which has since become famous, by artist Jacques-Louis David.  It was here, inside a tennis court, that members of the Third Estate decided to band together in full-out protest of the king and not stop until a constitution had been written.  Their statement of resolve toward this matter was called the Tennis Court Oath.
Perhaps the fact that the king had tried to stop ordinary citizens from meeting in public had something to do with their ultimate decision, but it has been argued that the king had not done so on purpose; that, because of the recent death of his son (sixteen days earlier) all political meeting houses were closed out of sheer formality, because the king was still in mourning.  Generally, however, it is agreed that the king overstepped his boundaries by banning citizens from public meeting houses—at least, that was the ruling of the French lower class in 1789.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rococo (pt. 11)

But we've forgotten about the Colonies!  They have since slipped away from us and become an independent nation under the leadership of General George Washington.  In 1776, the United States of America issued the declaration for their independence from the British.  We can see the influence of Enlightenment philosophies on such a decision, going back to John Locke's ideas of fundamental human rights.  In some respects the Enlightenment led to this revolutionary period that will frame our next section; for, a little over a decade after the revolution breaks out in America, the starving, neglected, and increasingly angry people of France will take inspiration from their overseas allies and enact a revolution of their own, and this revolution will shape the art world for nearly the entire century to follow.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Rococo (pt. 10)

Louis XV is attributed with saying, at the end of his reign, "Après moi, le déluge."  He was right; it came.  Succeeding his father to the throne was Louis XVI, under whose sovereignty the French economic situation did not improve.  In fact, in just a few years it worsened at the mercy of a country-wide famine that left peasants starving.  The aristocratic party, called the bourgeoisie, did nothing to prevent the situation from worsening, and the entire country fell deeper into unrest.
Married to Louis XVI was a young Austrian archduchess named Marie Antoinette who was made the queen of France at age 19.  Marie Antoinette perhaps defines Rococo living at Versailles.  She was limitlessly wealthy and almost just as prodigal with her authority, although the quote about eating cake famously attributed to her is unsupported and probably inaccurate.  Among her other amusements about the palace, she had, constructed for own personal use, a private cottage, which she called "Le Petit Hameu" (the little Hamlet).  It was designed after the style of a peasant country house.
She would frequently retreat to this cottage to literally "play peasant," or pretend to be a lower-class farmer or unskilled laborer.  The house still stands to this day (above is a photograph taken back in 2006) as a testament to the young queen's idle and ignorant lifestyle.  She would discover the irony of her pretending to identify with the lower class when she actually met them face to face a few years later, as an angry mob of peasants and farmers stormed the palace and dragged her and her family off to Paris.
Madame Vigée le Brun, the official portrait painter of the king and queen, often painted Marie Antoinette with her children under the order of the queen herself.  It is thought that, perhaps, despite all her flaws as a queen, she was at the very least a good mother to her children; but there are varying schools of thought on this.  During her later trial she would be accused of abusing her son (among other charges), but this could well have been rumor spread by the unhappy public, who invented the nickname "Madame Veto" due to her husband's repetitive practice in office of refusing to consign to any reforms that would limit his power.  Whether Marie Antoinette was the honest and caring mother many scholars have argued her to have been is largely left in mystery.  The royal couple had four children together, but only one survived past the age of ten.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rococo (pt. 9)

To get a better sense of this we can look at a painting by the artist Fragonard, who was among the most popular French artists at this time.  Pictured here is a prime example of Rococo painting, called The Swing.
An aristocratic woman is at a secret, romantic rendezvous with her lover, who is pictured on the bottom left, hiding in the bushes and looking up the woman's skirt.  They are out in a very natural setting and away from public observation.  The statue of the young angel on the left is shown holding a finger up to its mouth in a gesture of "silence," to further demonstrate that this meeting is secret (and therefore of questionable integrity).  The man on the right is probably a servant who may have arranged the meeting.  It's a scandalous piece of artwork for many reasons.  Riding on a swing was of course an unrefined activity for a lady during that time, but kicking off one's shoes had to have been even more uncivilized.  But the setting reminds us that they are in an uncivilized situation; they are out in nature, hidden from the eyes of the city and all who would condemn them.  They can afford to be uncivilized and even downright immoral in their flippant, easygoing way.  They can do whatever they want; and why shouldn't they, since they are men and women of money and resources?  It does not matter to them that their people are starving under taxation and famine; they are aristocrats, and they can certainly have a bit of adulterous fun at their own convenience.  It's utterly scandalous—the man is virtually reaching out his arm for the woman's genitalia—but consider the colors and tones Fragonard uses to create the scene.  Warm greens and soft blues establish a dreamy atmosphere of pastoral beauty and comfort, while the delicate pinks of the woman's dress connote a kind of soft loveliness and playful passion.  Angelic statues surround the place, rich lighting reigns down from above, and flowers bloom in radiance—all is bright and gay in the world of this painting.
Soft colors, light brushstrokes, delicate figures, and peaceful settings are all common motifs in Rococo art.  Life was, after all, quite good for the wealthy; and the wealthy were the only ones financially stable enough to spend money on commissioning artists to paint for them.
A friend of mine, who was also a student of art history, once defended his reasoning for liking Rococo art best among other historic art forms.  "I know it's silly," he said, "and the whole history behind it with the French aristocracy is awful; but just the style of the paintings themselves is what I like, because they're beautiful.  The colors, the brushwork—it all creates this kind of dreamy utopia.  It's painting an ideal way of how the world should be."  Although I couldn't say that Rococo is my favorite style of art, too, what he said is totally accurate.  He's right; the French painters during this period were attempting to paint an idealized version of the world (like Voltaire's "El Dorado") and, in so doing, were participating in the Enlightenment quest for the perfection of mankind.  Ultimately, it's a philosophical genre of painting; it's just that these artists arrive at their answers to supreme truth and utopian fulfillment in the spendthrift lives of the aristocracy.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Rococo (pt. 8)

At the time of the Seven Years' War, Louis XV was in power, and he was no exception to the aristocratic trend at that time for an opulent and immoral lifestyle.  He ordered the construction of a private house on the actual palace grounds solely for his mistresses to live in.  Not the least famous among his mistresses was Madame du Barry, who the king doted on with splendid gifts costing exorbitant amounts of money.  Another celebrated mistress of the king around this time (and probably the most memorable) was Madame de Pompadour, from which we derive the English word today for a pompadour.  As the king's chief mistress for almost twenty years, she was the most popular lady in France and also the leader of French fashion and style.  Her portrait here shows her extravagantly dressed in rich colors, the very image of splendor.
Even though she was the king's mistress, she is painted here as the most beautiful and refined woman of social standing.  Paintings like this one go a long way in describing the general lack of morality and responsibility among the aristocracy at this time.  That is what Rococo is all about.  The style of art centers itself around the carefree lifestyle of the upper class.  Taking a supportive view of this way of life, art continues to positively showcase the immoral in a tone of lighthearted cleverness and dreamy sentimentality.  No paintings of war or great moments in church history pass very much noticed during the Rococo Period in France.  Few serious paintings are really produced at all.  The pervading atmosphere of art at this time is wistful, cheery, pleasant, and wholly frivolous.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Rococo (pt. 7)

An emphasis in artistic subject matter on the aristocracy and the carefree luxury of the aristocratic lifestyle is perhaps the key, defining element of French Rococo art.  The word comes from the French rocaille (meaning rock or stone, but here indicative of a valuable gem or pearl).  Rococo art seeks to lavishly display the opulence of wealth, social status, political power, and all of the benefits assigned during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the French aristocracy.  This is the extreme opposite to the plain, honest art style of the Protestant Reformation and the Dutch Baroque genre paintings.  This period of art history discards humility and piety, and replaces saintly martyrs or biblical heroes with contemporary persons of social rank and privilege.
This was maybe the beginning of French predominance in the art world.  France was, by the latter half of the eighteenth century, the world leader of artistic style.  The nation rose in influence under the reign of Louis XIV, also known as the "Sun King," who claimed Divine Right Kingship and associated himself with Apollo, appealing in one stroke to both the doctrines of the Catholic religion and the traditional beliefs of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.  His reign was historic as probably the longest enthronement of any single king in modern European history; he was king for over 72 years.  Here he is seen painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud, standing proud in magnificent and enormous robes bearing the French symbol of the fleur de lis.  An old professor of mine said it best when he observed this painting and commented, "What legs!"
It was Louis XIV who first moved his capital from the city of Paris to the Palace of Versailles, the building which, like no other structure during that time, defined the Rococo Period through its extravagant decorativeness and over-the-top stock of precious finery.  Versailles is where French Rococo reached its height, and it was from there that the next three generations of monarchs would reign in lavish opulence, whilst their people, the lower class and peasants of France, grew increasingly unhappy over the failing economic situation of the country.
The French nation soon plummeted into debt from the aristocracy's lifestyle of excess.  The magnificence of the Palace of Versailles became to the lower class a constant reminder of the aristocracy's irresponsible spending and ineffective government.  France's participation in the Seven Years' War brought the nation's economy to even more desperate levels.  To compensate, heavier taxation was placed upon the populace.  Attempts to reform these oppressive tax laws were vetoed.  Meanwhile, the rich aristocrats and royal noblemen continued to expand in wealth and prosperity, but they gradually fell into disfavor with the general public.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rococo (pt. 6)

Restoration literature featured a high influx of humor and wit doubtless attributable to the widespread sense of higher cognition characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment.  The poet John Dryden was the foremost champion of early Restoration literature, to be followed later by the genius of writers such as Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Alexander Pope.  Named the country's Poet Laureate in 1668, Dryden was, among other things, a gifted playwright.  He wrote in the style that was becoming increasingly popular at that time and which would continue to develop for another century.
The style of Restoration Theater was one which centered on comedy as the top genre.  Stage plays at the time had turned very much to take after the French style and had given up the prior Shakespearean glory of swashbuckling action and drama, replacing it with what was known as "sentimental comedy."  Again, the cleverness of witty intellectual writing was held as the better trend during this period, and satire was largely prevalent.  A classic example of Restoration comedy can be seen in William Congreve's play The Way of the World, which makes use of satiric witticisms and clever puns to mock the finer aspects of aristocratic living.  As things progressed, Restoration writers became increasingly liberal with their content, flashing satire at every institution and doing it through virtually every method.  One popular subject for critical humor at this time was women, and one need only read Swift's poem "The Lady's Dressing Room" to get an idea of how sexually explicit and downright squalid the comical tastes of the time had become.  Secular though the subject matters were, through satire writers became popular as political spokesmen and the propagators of new social philosophies contributing to the Enlightenment development.
Dryden paved the way for all of this.  Among his most famous plays, he wrote one entitled Marriage à la mode (or "Fashionable Marriage" in French).  The play later inspired artist and social critic William Hogarth to produce a series of paintings under the same name in 1743-1745.
Hogarth took more interest in painting common people in London streets and taverns than he did in painting portraits.  He enjoyed exposing immorality and foolish customs, and Marriage à la mode is no exception.  In the first painting, or Scene I of the series, entitled The Marriage Contract, Hogarth makes fun of arranged marriages, which was then still the predominant practice among the aristocracy.  We see the bride and groom sitting next to each other on the far left, but neither is facing the other.  In fact, they hardly seem to notice each other—not a very promising start to the marriage, no doubt.  The groom looks bored and is holding a small box of tobacco.  The bride looks depressed.  (Women at this time tended to lose far more in marriage than what they gained from it).  A lawyer at her side flirts with her (as indicated by his coy smile and gesture of the arm).  The scene is starkly opposite to the idealization of marriage which we are naturally inclined to imagine when considering that happiest of unions.  Through his sarcasm and ridicule Hogarth makes the event far more dismal and absurd in effort to comment on the silliness of the aristocracy's observance of marriage and phony love on the surface level but also, in a deeper level, the aristocracy's broader ludicrousness in general among all aspects of society.  To the right of the painting we see the father of the bride looking over the marriage certificate as if it was a business contract, mocking the upper-class preoccupation with wealth, economics, and power.  Also, the artist pokes fun at the aristocracy's pompous fixation with titles of nobility.  The father of the groom (on the far right) proudly points to his family tree to proclaim the superiority of his lineage and status, but Hogarth has ironically painted him as suffering from gout, a disease which was at that time believed to be caused by gluttony and alcoholism, making him clearly not a specimen of noble worth.  Even the two dogs in the far left corner, the symbols of fidelity from Baroque art, only add sarcastic humor to the scene.  Hardly loyal by devotion, the two are literally leashed and tied together in a dark joke on what Hogarth observes as the true nature of marriage, the male standing tall and the bitch, collapsed, despondent on the ground.  Satire like the kind used in Hogarth's painting was popular during this time as a clever way to denounce vice or folly.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Rococo (pt. 5)

The Protestant Reformation had been against religious images and the pomp of artistic creation as a form of pride, but the return of the Stuarts to the English throne, along with the growth of the aristocracy, brought back art's importance.  The art of this period reflected the social sentiment of national stability and political peace.  With all its major upheavals of war and revolution behind it, England could once again focus on the themes of peacetime and educational growth.  The overall effect on the art during this time was a more flowery, pleasant style that focused on everyday social affairs instead of historic revolutions and religious wars.  Portraits became especially popular, and people invited foreign artists from all across Europe to paint for them.  It was during this period that the British art of portraiture was perfected in such artists as Thomas Gainsborough, who painted the famous Blue Boy.
The artist Thomas Gainsborough was admired for his delicate brushwork and rich, glistening pastel colors.  Sir Joshua Reynolds, another skilled painter at that time and Gainsborough's rival, stated once in a lecture that the color blue was detractive, and that it should never be used as the primary color in a portrait.  Gainsborough took this as a direct challenge and decided to paint a portrait with blue in it.  The portrait was of a young man dressed in blue, and its popularity proved Reynolds wrong.  However, rather than feel cross at his rival for outperforming him, Reynolds praised Gainsborough's achievement in a subsequent lecture after Gainsborough's death in 1788.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Rococo (pt. 4)

I said that many other philosophies relating to politics dominated the Enlightenment, and these will become equally significant later on.  Particularly, John Locke's theories on the natural rights of man (that of life, liberty, and property) influenced the political arena of the late eighteenth century.  In lieu of such absolutist demonstrations as those seen in England under King Charles I, Enlightenment thinkers took it upon themselves to produce political theories and models for the ideal governmental system.  Where all this political speculating would lead, the latter half of the century would show; but for now let's resume our look at the Restoration Period in Great Britain before we cross over to France and look at Rococo art.
The Great Fire of London struck in 1666 and lasted four days, destroying 89 churches.  Commissioned to be in charge of reconstruction was a young British architect named Christopher Wren, who was also at the time a professor of astronomy at Oxford University.  Wren's challenge was that he had to design the churches to fit in their small, predetermined spaces.  He therefore used tall, slender steeples to build upwards, not outwards.  These steeples became significant in England and later in North America as the architectural preference, and even though he drew from Greco-Roman designs, Wren is credited with their introduction into the modern world.  His most famous creation he went on to design: the façade of St. Paul's Cathedral.
This cathedral was the tallest building in London for over two hundred years and still continues today to be one of the city's most endearing landmarks.  In designing it, Wren created deep porches at two levels to instill a pattern of light and dark values (recalling Baroque tradition).  Each porch has a pair of huge columns supporting it, and as the building goes up, the porches grow thinner, pointing the viewer's look to the top dome and tympanum.  The two towers on either side beautifully frame the building.  By employing this unity of design, the cathedral appears reminiscent of Classical structures like the Parthenon; all parts of the building are symmetrical and balanced, very similar to the ancient Roman architectural technique.
As I mentioned, this form of structural design would become vastly significant to England and North America in the following centuries.  Sir Christopher Wren was knighted in 1673, when he was just above forty years old.  He is to this day considered one of the greatest architects in history.  Today, the London skyline itself serves as Wren's legacy, because he was the one responsible for the construction of over fifty churches after the Great Fire.  It is for this reason that Wren's eldest son wrote on his father's tombstone at St. Paul's Cathedral in 1723 the inscription which, translated from Latin, states: "If ye seek my monument, look around."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Rococo (pt. 3)

Although the ideals popular during the Enlightenment will not radically shake the European (and, in fact, the worldwide) political scene for another hundred years or so, we ought not to continue anachronistically; so we will quickly put a few of those ideals on the table now, and we will have to keep them in the back of our memory for later.  The great thinkers of the Enlightenment are no unfamiliar names: John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, René Descartes, Adam Smith, and Voltaire, just to name a few.  Each of these (and several others) is important to the development of Western philosophy, but there is simply too much there to examine each of their writings and ideas.  So, not to neglect the others but only for the sake of time, we will focus mainly on Rousseau, whose philosophies will directly influence the future of the art we will be looking at.
But first it is essential to understand that around this time the idea of what the French called bon sauvage (the philosophical concept of the noble savage) was being established.  Perhaps directly influenced by the Colonials, who were observing and interacting with the native "Indians" first-hand, European philosophers had to rethink the nature of mankind upon discovering what they saw as a totally different race of humanity.  Despite the wholesale slaughter of countless natives via their own expatriates, the European populace slowly fell toward favoring the "savage" because of the belief in man's inherent state of purity when left uncorrupted by society and technology.
This concept was further established (but certainly not first thought of) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a writer, philosopher, and musician who lived during the latter half of the Enlightenment Period.  Rousseau's novel Émile propagated the notions that children are born pure, and that it is the culture of society which corrupts the mind and heart of innocence in youth.  Children, he argued, should be raised in the country, in nature, like peasants (or savages) in order to mature more naturally (and, consequently, more ideally).  It was here that the word "kindergarten" originated—a German word comprised of the words for "child" and "garden."  Rousseau's idea of education was one which sought to put children in better touch with Nature and the pure, unadulterated pastoral world of God's creation.  Through natural unfolding, left alone to grow in countryside settings away from technological influence, children, Rousseau asserted, would develop as purer human beings than even the greatest of his contemporaries.  This ideology is still seen all around us today in our own education system.  Early American leaders and entrepreneurs bought into this philosophy and applied it to their construction of college campuses and universities across the nation.  This is why so many colleges are decorated and supplied with verdant foliage, to the resemblance of a public park or garden grove.  It's not just for looks; it stems (no pun intended) from the idea that our youth should be raised and educated in nature.  Most universities in the United States today are still kept to look this way.
With this notion the only logical conclusion to arrive at is that truth, purity, and the holiness of God can be found in Nature, since it is through living in harmony with the natural world (like a savage) that one becomes truly noble.  We have seen a focus on pastoral landscapes in art before, during the Dutch Baroque period of art; but note the distinction.  The Dutch Baroque artists were acting from religious motivations—Protestant motivations—in effort to express the idea that the natural man could be holy without the intermediation of the Catholic Church; and the humble peasant could, in his own plowing-field, be considered as holy as—or more holy than—the most decorated bishop in the Vatican.  It was about religion and the Protestant view of man's direct relationship to God.  The Enlightenment view of Rousseau is very different.  It erases God and claims that mankind can be perfect in and of himself if only raised to live in harmony and peaceful coexistence with the natural world that God created.  Since God's creation is inherently good, a savage living off the land is closer to holiness than a nobleman.  No longer is it about relating to God through Nature and everyday observances and living; it's about becoming ideally perfect in and of one's own human nature through separation from civilization.  This is a very important concept, and I may not be explaining it clearly enough; perhaps a little later on we can discuss it some more.  A simple way to tell the difference between the two mindsets is in the physical manifestation of their art.  The Dutch Baroque artists, you will recall, often included a spire, or church steeple, in their landscape paintings as a symbol of their humble religious devotion, a reminder to serve God faithfully; the later Romantics, as we will see, paint equally lovely images of natural landscapes—but without the spire.  This apotheosis of Nature will become grandiosely significant later on, but for now it is merely introduced.