Friday, January 10, 2014

The Romantic Era (pt. 19)

Romanticism brought out the heroism of Modern life.  As the middle class had entered into the limelight of artistic interest, the problem of otherwise boring subjects were met with passionately exaggerated imagery of chivalry, valor, and courage.  In an increasingly industrial age, when most of the English middle class's daily routine consisted of the highly regimented monotony of unskilled labor, the Romantic artist sought to instill a spirit of grandeur and adventure into the otherwise ordinary mundaneness of life.  And although there are some elements of Realism in these paintings (graphic imagery or more honest subject matter), it's setting a precedent of greater weight than what it depicts.  Everyday events brought out the dignity of the common man and the honor in basic human behavior.
So we see Thomas Eakins The Gross Clinic as a Romantic exemplar.  Here we see the dramatic lighting of G√©ricault's Raft of the Medusa translated into the very ordinary setting of a clinical auditorium.  The figures (probably medical students) sitting in the stands fall back into the darkness, and all light rains down on the doctor after whom the painting is named (no, it's not called "Gross" because he has blood on his fingers; the doctor's name was Gross).  He is the stateliest figure, a picture of stalwart authority and wisdom, unflinching, and wholly professional in demeanor.  One viewer sitting to the side, an older lady, shrinks back in alarm at the profuse amount of blood involved in the operation, but the brave doctor carries on with the procedure with unwavering fortitude.  His fellow staff members work diligently on the body being dissected, handling their responsibilities very seriously so as not to injure the patient—but also so as not to injure their professional standing with the doctor.  He is their boss; he is the future generation's instructor and model; and he is perhaps the savior of this patient's life.  Risen to such a level, we can but admire the dignity of this most honorable doctor who is lit from above with a most dramatic lighting, as from heaven itself.  Perhaps a saint, definitely a hero, and most clearly a man, this otherwise common Pennsylvanian doctor here becomes immortalized under the artistic style of Romantic painting.  Painted in 1875, this late Romantic painting is considered Thomas Eakins' masterpiece as well as a masterpiece of late Romantic and Realist art.

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