Girodet: Romantic Rebel
The Art Institute of Chicago
Girodet Romantic Rebel



    Girodet. Portrait of Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley, Ex-Representative of the Colonies, 1797. Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles.


    Girodet: Romantic Rebel is the first retrospective in the United States devoted to the works of gifted French artist Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824). The exhibition assembles more than 100 key works (about 60 paintings and 40 drawings) that demonstrate the artist’s impressive range, from mythological subjects to portraits to representations of Napoleon’s military triumphs. Girodet’s relatively brief career spanned one of the most tumultuous yet important periods in French history, during which he forged a new artistic sensibility combining intellectual refinement and sensuality. His works reflect the political and social turmoil of 18th-century France, a time marked by the French Revolution, the reign of Napoleon, and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy to the throne.

    Trained in the workshop of the leading painter of the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David, the passionate Girodet diverged from the rigorously rational, Neoclassical style of his master in order to develop his own extremely imaginative and often very personal manner. He aimed to transcend history painting and create works that were poetic and universal in their themes, thus negotiating the rapidly changing politics of his time. Much of his success was due to his creative and moving renditions of episodes in contemporary literature, notably the myths of Ossian, admired by Napoleon, and the writings of Chateaubriand. Embracing a wide range of subjects and emotions, Girodet reinvented his style and expanded the boundaries of what was considered appropriate by the French art establishment. In this innovative exploration of new and exotic themes, visual effects, and untoward or violent emotions, Girodet was an early proponent of what came to be called the Romantic movement in art and literature.

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    Girodet’s Student Years and the Prix de Rome
    During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Neoclassical movement developed as a reaction to the overly refined, decorative aesthetics of the Rococo style. Rococo mirrored an aristocracy engaged in the pursuit of pleasure prior to the French Revolution of 1789. To cure France of dainty curves and boudoir themes, Neoclassicism grounded itself in ancient Greek and Roman culture and often used ancient themes to reinforce political messages. The severe style of Neoclassicism came to be regarded as a revolutionary manifesto, signaling the end of corruption of the aristocracy and a return to the morals of republican Rome. Jacques-Louis David, the leading artist of the Neoclassical movement, first expressed the aspirations and tragedy of the French Revolution and then became a chief painter of the pomp of Napoleon’s empire.

    Girodet entered David’s studio in 1784, where his education emphasized learning the basics of perspective and human anatomy while emulating his teacher. In David’s studio, many of the master’s important works were created with students both witnessing and participating in their execution. This highly respected workshop, which included the most gifted and ambitious young artists of the time, controlled the artistic life in Paris, gaining prestigious prizes and important state commissions.

    The French Academy, founded in 1666, annually offered a four-year scholarship to artists to study in Rome. This Rome Prize was a highly coveted honor and the cornerstone of any artistic career. Many of David’s students competed for and won this prize. The contestants, isolated for 72 days to create their work, were asked to paint a subject from antiquity or biblical history without the aid of drawings or preparatory sketches. After three unsuccessful attempts (including one in which he was accused of cheating by using smuggled drawings), Girodet finally succeeded in 1789 with his painting Joseph Recognized by his Brothers. While preparing to leave for Italy, Girodet continued to work in David’s studio. The Dead Christ Supported by the Virgin (or The Entombment) was the first painting that Girodet produced after winning the Rome Prize but before his departure for Italy. Its dark, dramatic realism combines aspects of David’s Neoclassical style with elements of 17th-century Italian works that Girodet had viewed in Paris. Girodet subtly interprets his models with poetic touches. The contrasts of light and shadow, the claustrophobic grotto, and the soft, early morning light cast on the cross are elements that he would return to in later works.

    While in Italy, Girodet began to break free from David’s Neoclassicism and develop his own idiosyncratic style. As he veered away from orthodox classicism, Girodet created highly imaginative compositions that he hoped would surpass David in their intensity of artistic expression. Challenging the rigidity of artistic categories and pursuing a passion for poetry and an eccentric classicism, Girodet transformed David’s teachings into a language all his own.

    The Sleep of Endymion embodies this rift, introducing mystery, irrationality, and sensuality into the hard, clear, and civic-minded art of David. Interpreting his subjects in an evocative and dreamlike manner (and adding a strange, erotic charge), The Sleep of Endymion shows Girodet’s passion for two artistic forms that he hoped to fuse: painting and poetry. Painted in Rome in 1791, The Sleep of Endymion was produced as part of obligatory tests given by the French Academy. In this imaginative work, the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana, is represented as a shaft of light, purely immaterial, casting herself over the naked body of the young shepherd, Endymion. The amorous god Cupid, appearing in the form of the west-wind deity Zephyr, moves the foliage aside so that the mystical union can occur. By representing Diana as a ray of light, Girodet disguises the female element and presents the myth in an intimate manner. The erotic solitude of the androgynous body of Endymion is quietly offered to the unearthly Diana and to the viewer. Here, poetry displaces the didactic, the mythical displaces the political, and reason gives way to the irrational.

    After completing The Sleep of Endymion, Girodet began to work on Hippocrates Refusing the Gifts of Artaxerxes. The painting depicts the virtuous Greek physician who refused to accept the monetary gifts of his enemy Artaxerxes in exchange for medical expertise. Girodet had just sent the painting to France when, in 1793, the citizens sacked the French Academy in Rome for fear that its students would incite revolutionary action. Penniless and ill, Girodet took refuge in Naples for 16 months. During this period he concentrated almost exclusively on landscapes, completing such works as View of Mount Vesuvius and the Farmhouse of Anjou.

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    Parallel Ambitions: Painting and Poetry

    Increasingly, Girodet explored themes of a more Romantic nature, taking up literary subjects that involved the irrational and the exotic, often portraying them in an erotic manner. In this way, his works embody an aesthetic ideal, breaking down the boundaries between poetry and painting. It was in his paintings and drawings illustrating literature that Girodet carried this fusion of literature and painting to its greatest extreme. In The Burial of Atala, Girodet paints a scene from François- René de Chateaubriand’s tragic love story, Atala, or the Loves of Two Savages in the Desert. This novel exemplifies the melancholic, exotic description of nature and evocative language that became trademarks of Romantic fiction, and it was immensely popular when it was published in 1801. It tells the story of the Christian Indian maiden Atala, who frees the Indian brave Chactas from his enemies and finds refuge with him in the cave of the religious hermit Father Aubry. Having consecrated herself to God and a life of chastity, Atala takes poison when she fears she is falling in love with Chactas. After her death, Chactas vows to become a Christian himself. Commissioned by the director of a newspaper that opposed the Empire, Girodet’s painting elevates a subject from contemporary literature to the status of a major religious work. The monumental arrangement of the figures, the grotto setting, and the cross isolated against the distant sky recall The Dead Christ Supported by the Virgin.

    In addition to works inspired by contemporary literature, Girodet also looked to antique myths for inspiration. Pygmalion and Galatea was Girodet’s last major work, which he spent 7 years completing before it was exhibited at the 1819 Salon. The myth of Pygmalion, from Ovid’s first-century A.D. masterpiece Metamorphoses, tells the story of a sculptor, Pygmalion, who created a statue of a woman, Galatea, out of ivory. He then asked Venus, the goddess of love, for a wife as beautiful as Galatea. Venus granted his wish by having the statue come to life. Girodet represents the moment when the sculpture transforms from ivory to flesh and blood. Between the two figures, Cupid smiles knowingly. This work recalls the nostalgia and sentimental style of Neoclassicism, which would soon be supplanted by the color and exoticism of the Romantic style of such artists as Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix.

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    In the late 18th century, Napoleon rose to power through military campaigns, culminating in his coronation as emperor in 1804. In 1800 Girodet was commissioned to paint a canvas to decorate Napoleon’s country retreat. Seeking favor with the government, Girodet chose as his subject one of Napoleon’s favorite books, the mythic poems of Ossian. Between 1760 and 1765, Scottish writer James Macpherson published four volumes that he falsely claimed he had translated from the writings of a third-century Gaelic bard, Ossian. The works caused an immediate sensation when they were published and had a massive impact on the culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. The poems promoted the idea of the supernatural, which served as an alternative to the rational ideals of the Enlightenment. In The Spirits of French Heroes Welcomed by Ossian into Odin’s Paradise, Girodet combines Ossianic mythology with French military history to create a spatially dense, complex political allegory. French soldiers surround the blind poet Ossian ready to be welcomed into Odin’s paradise. Odin, a chief divinity of the Norse pantheon, is a god of war and death, but also of poetry and wisdom. Here, the French military heroes are illuminated with an inner radiance and surrounded by floating maidens. Due to rapidly changing political alliances, the painting was soon deemed obsolete and never hung in Napoleon’s residence. Now it is considered an innovative work and a precursor to Romanticism.

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    Girodet’s Drawings

    Best known for his paintings, Girodet was also an immensely talented draftsman. Characterized by smoky, crystalline atmosphere, virtuoso technique, and complex iconography, Girodet’s drawings of the Ossian myths were executed as studies for his paintings and as independent works. One group of wash drawings, including Fingal Lamenting the Death of Malvina, may have been created as part of an unpublished serial project. Girodet masterfully combines brown and black wash, black chalk, and white heightening to evoke an ethereal quality that suggests the narrative rather than blandly explicating it. Nordic characters meet in moonlit landscapes or in celestial palaces, where wind, air, water, and light circulate. In these ephemeral scenes, one finds fluidity between earthly materiality and celestial immateriality.

    At the center of Girodet’s creativity was his ambition to transform poetry into painting and vice versa. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he devoted much of his time to writing poetry and translating classical literature. His drawings for Racine’s Phaedra and Virgil’s Aeneid were printed by publisher Pierre Didot. Created with crisp, sinuous lines and delicate washes, Girodet’s illustrations clearly reflect his appreciation for the antique texts. Lamentation over the Death of Pallas and The Trojan Horse (both depicting moments from the Aeneid) and Phaedra, Having Declared Her Passion, Attempts to Kill Herself with the Sword of Hippolytus show how Girodet challenges the artistic boundaries between literature and painting.

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    Girodet’s interest in private portrait painting was continuous throughout his career, and had a sensational beginning. At the 1799 Salon, Girodet exhibited a portrait of fashionable and elegant Mademoiselle Lange, an actress who had recently married a wealthy banker. The well-connected couple commissioned Girodet to paint the portrait; however, after it was poorly received at the Salon, Mlle Lange asked him to withdraw it from display. Enraged, Girodet removed the painting, cut it to pieces, and sent them to Mlle Lange. He then submitted a new painting to the Salon (in the destroyed portrait’s frame), Mademoiselle Lange as Danaë. This work showed a young, nude woman contemplating a shower of gold, surrounded by symbols of greed and lust. All of Paris recognized Mlle Lange as the mythological figure; her husband as a turkey dressed in peacock feathers; and her lover, Beauregard, in a mask, blinded by the gold coins. The ensuing scandal was enormous and demonstrated Girodet’s contentious and independent character.

    Apparently, the scandal associated with this portrait did not discourage potential clients, and many fashionable men and women continued to call upon Girodet. His clients were mainly those close to him: family members, doctors, scientists, and, eventually, the royalist supporters of the Restoration. Each sitter is presented in the grand manner of historical portraiture through scale, attitude, and the use of accessories that refer to his or her life or exemplary moral qualities.

    Benoît-Agnès Trioson Studying his Latin Grammar Book portrays the son of Girodet’s foster father. In this portrait, 10-year-old Benoît-Agnès has put away his toys to pursue more mature study. However, he has set aside his Latin grammar book and violin to engage in a bit of wistful daydreaming. The butterfly pinned to the chair alludes to both the child’s interest in the natural world and functions as a traditional symbol of the soul, the boy’s flight of spirit.

    Portrait of Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley, Ex-Representative of the Colonies is one of Girodet’s most commanding and celebrated portraits. This work depicts Jean-Baptiste Belley, a former representative of the colonies, accompanied by a bust of the abolitionist Guillaume-Thomas Raynal. The portrait acknowledges one of the fundamental achievements of the French Republic: the establishment of human rights. A former Senegalese slave, Belley worked to abolish slavery in the colonies. Girodet emphasizes the stature of his subject through his elegant posture and heavenward gaze, which recall grand portraits of nobles and sovereigns.

    In 1811 Girodet was asked to paint 36 full-length portraits of Napoleon in imperial costume for display in Courts of Justice throughout the Empire. Only about 12 paintings were completed, including Napoleon in Imperial Dress, and by 1814, not one of them had been delivered to the government. After the fall of the Empire, they became politically irrelevant, and only five examples are known to exist today.

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    Scene from a Deluge and the Revolt of Cairo

    Scene from a Deluge stirred up much controversy when it was exhibited in the Salon of 1806. In response to the criticisms of The Spirits of French Heroes Welcomed by Ossian into Odin’s Paradise, which was faulted for excessive symbolism and figures in a compressed space, Scene from a Deluge presents a stark contrast, with lifesize forms on a monumental canvas. First conceived while in Italy in 1795, the work was intended to fill the viewer with intense and elevated emotions that were referred to as “sublime” in the 18th century. In painting this scene, Girodet recalled and competed with images of the biblical Deluge by Michelangelo and 17th-century French master Nicolas Poussin. However, unlike his predecessors, Girodet claimed that his work did not represent the Old Testament event: “I used the word ‘deluge’ simply to mean a sudden and limited inundation resulting from a convulsion of Nature.” Nature’s irrational and violent aspects were to become a central theme of the Romantic movement, of which Girodet as an early exponent.

    The Revolt of Cairo also explores this notion of the sublime. In order to restore the Gallery of Diana in the Tuileries Palace to its former splendor, Napoleon commissioned a series of paintings that depicted his rise to power through military victories. Instead of documenting the event with historical exactitude, Girodet let his imagination run free. The painting represents a scene from Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt when the Mameluke, Egyptian, and Turkish warriors revolted against French soldiers. The dynamic surge of movement on the canvas is enlivened by the extreme facial expressions of the figures. This immense canvas, which now hangs in the Palace of Versailles, prompted the artist to create a huge number of preliminary oil sketches and drawings. While painting this canvas, Girodet surrounded himself with Mameluke models, whose exotic beauty fascinated the artist. Two related works from the Art Institute’s collection are featured in the exhibition to evoke this major work: a beautiful preparatory sketch for the Revolt of Cairo, and Portrait of Katchef Dahouth, a Christian Mameluke. Girodet’s captivating depictions of the Mamelukes strongly influenced future French Romantic artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault.

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