Thursday, June 16, 2005

Neoclassicism and Romanticism

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Madame Jacques-Louis Leblanc (Françoise Poncelle), 1823.

Continuing with an account of my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last month: after the Ancient Egyptian tour, I joined a tour of some works by French Impressionists. I can pass along a few highlights.

The first stops on the tour of the galleries housing nineteenth-century French painting were before works by Ingres and Delacroix, in order to illustrate the styles of two important schools in the years that preceded the emergence of Impressionism.

Ingres was offered as the representative of the neoclassical style in painting: every detail is carefully reproduced on the canvas -- note for instance the details in the complex pattern on the multicolored cloth in the painting above; drawn lines give a definite shape to every element depicted; the brushstroke is hidden so as to create a smooth, illusionistic surface, and furthermore the surface is heavily varnished to give it a slick, glossy finish.

The neoclassical outlook emphasized a hierarchy of genres, organized by the nobility and importance of subject matter. At the top of the neoclassical hierarchy: scenes from history, legend, and myth. Below those subjects in importance were portraits – usually, in this period, of aristocrats or merchants and their families, since they were the ones who could afford to hire someone to paint them; then landscapes; then “genre scenes,” meaning scenes from everyday life or colorful, sometimes pathetic, scenes from the lives of commoners or peasants. Because of his renown for and success with portraits, though, Ingres actually didn’t make many paintings at the top of the neoclassical hierarchy. His time was taken up with all of the lucrative portrait commissions that he received.

The particular portraits by Ingres that our tour group examined were of a husband and wife. Reproduced above is that of Madame Jacques-Louis Leblanc (Françoise Poncelle, 1788-1839). Ingres's work is considered to represent the pinnacle of the neoclassical style in portraiture, the style that dominated academic training in painting and the annual salon shows that were the most prestigious opportunities for exhibition. Yet this particular portrait was controversial for some liberties that it took with, or distortions that it introduced to, the depiction of its subject. Some critics at the time complained that Ingres had made a monster of his subject by distorting her anatomy in the service of composition: her left arm was said to be unnaturally elongated while her right arm is stunted. To some, her forehead appeared to be truncated, as though her skull were of inadequate size to house a normal human brain. And notice her fingers, which according to the complaint are tapered to a grotesque degree. I leave it to you whether you accept these criticisms – whether the artist has painted a misshapen monster.

The Romantic school in French painting, another nineteenth-century predecessor to Impressionism, attempted to challenge the neoclassical stranglehold on the Academy and the salon. Where neoclassicism placed drawing and the line at the center of composition, Romantic painters tended to favor the expressive use of color, and the building up of forms with brushstrokes rather than insisting on clear lines and adherence to definite underdrawing. In contrast to the neoclassical imperative to hide the brushstroke, Romanticism tends to leave it showing – a tendency, along with the free and expressive use of color, that would later receive even more attention and emphasis among the Impressionists. I think that it would be correct to say that landscape was a more important topic for the Romantics than for the neoclassical painters, though the latter had their own approach to landscape painting: to depict classical ruins in natural settings intended to evoke picturesque Italian landscape, or else the grandeur of ancient civilization. But the Impressionists owe more to the Romantic treatment of landscape as a field of activity for the imagination and as a reflection, in external nature, of what in human inner nature corresponds to the beauty and sublimity of the world.

Delacroix's painting The Natchez, offered in the museum tour as a representative work of Romanticism, depicts a scene from a narrative, but the scene does not originate in history, legend, or myth -- the favored sources for neoclassical scenes. Rather, it illustrates a scene from the fictional story "Atala" by Chateaubriand, written and published around the turn of the nineteenth century after Chateaubriand's visit to the "New World." The story and painting have as background the actual massacre of the native American Natchez tribe by the French in the 1700's, though the particular characters and incidents of the story are invented.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), The Natchez, 1823-35.

The story and painting both treat the plight of the native Americans with sympathy and pathos, while at the same time taking delight in the exotic quality both of the wild natural setting and the idea of the virtuous simplicity of the tribe that is being wiped out. In the context of the confrontation between neoclassicism and Romanticism, it occurs to me that the "New World" must have seemed to offer an open, unbounded space for the play of a certain kind of imagination, providing an opportunity to project one's speculation and fantasy onto a little-known but suggestive, colorful milieu. By comparison, I imagine that the weight of tradition and the multitude of existing works of art around historical and mythical subjects might have made neoclassical subjects seem a very crowded, or overworked, field. I find some visual correlatives to the openness and imaginative freedom allowed by the painting's subject matter, including the expressive, rather than strictly realistic or mimetic, use of color (note the position of the red tone in the sky in relation to the bright red blanket), and the use of an imagined, rather than an actual, landscape as the setting. In Chateaubriand's story, this scene in which the doomed Native Americans give birth to their child (also doomed) takes place by the banks of the Mississippi. But as our docent pointed out, you are not likely to find a craggy mountain of the sort visible in the upper right corner of the painting anywhere near the Mississippi River. In the treatment of the suffering of unknown, or imagined, natives in a fantasized landscape, you will see a point-of-departure for a critique of the depiction of the natives despite the element of sympathy or regret over the depredations of the Europeans. One way of posing the question: at what point does the ethical concern – the sense of conscience – diverge from the aesthetic pleasure that one derives from the exotic and savage setting and characters, and even from the delightfully poignant suffering?

More on Impressionism – Courbet, Manet, and Degas – at a later date….


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding "The Natchez" by Delacroix: actually there are bluffs 200 feet high at Natchez. If you think of this feature in the upper right corner as such, rather than a "craggy mountain", it seems more feasible as an accurate characteristic of the landscape.

Mon Sep 18, 01:04:00 AM EDT  

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