Saturday, 10 October 2015

Laughter in the rain

 Anne-Louis Girodet Trioson was a fine painter, but by a quirk of cosmic fate was destined  (in my opinion - you may disagree) to paint the most unintentionally funny painting ever.  But before we get to that lets say something about the man and his career. Born in 1767 in Montargis, he was orphaned at an early age and adopted by Dr Benoît François Trioson, who raised him and the painter took his surname in 1812.  He served for a short time in the army, then studied architecture, and eventually turned to painting, becoming a pupil of Etienne-Louis Boullée.   On the suggestion of his master, he decided to apply to become one of the pupils of the leading Neo Classicist of the day J. L. David.

David seems to have favoured him, as he helped with the work on some of David's paintings, and on leaving his studies rapidly found the support of patrons.  However, he like a lot of Davids pupils, rebelled against the teachings of their former master.  'I will endeavour to free myself as much as is possible from the edicts of his approach, and to that end I will spare neither pain, nor study, nor model, nor plaster.  If I end up badly, then it is my own fault.'

Anne-Louis Girodet Trioson.  Self Portrait.
  He had, like a lot of French painters who had won the prix de Rome spent time in Italy, and had seen the sculptures and paintings of Michelangelo, and no doubt filled countless sketchpads with drawn notes and copies of these works and others.  He developed a very theatrical style, artificial and overwrought with mannerist figures and smooth wrinkle free skin.   Although his approach is realistic from a painterly point of view, it gives a highly unrealistic result.   He is usually said to be one of the first Romantic painters, choosing the kind of sturm und drang subjects usually associated with that movement.

His work was certainly liked by the people at the salons, in the 1790's, as it had a strange novelty, filled with misty light effects and bizzarre poses.  In a previous blog I have mentioned one of his paintings, Apotheosis of French Heroes Who Died for the Fatherland during the War of Liberation, and this work has all his film special effects on show.  Madame de Vendeul mentioned this painting, saying of its misty light  ...'pervading the whole is a magic, a soapy mousse which may be as skilled as it is clever, but which I cannot say is attractive.'

 He painted a large number of portraits and a number of history paintings, such as The Death of Atala, and mythological scenes such as The Sleep of Endymion, but perhaps his best work is The Revolt at Cairo.  This enormous painting (eleven foot, eight and a quarter inches, by sixteen foot, four and three quarter inches) in which presumably the figures are life size shows a desperate combat between Egyptian Mamelukes and French infantry and dragoons.  The design is one of a mass of many figures who seem to cascade upwards from left to right as the Mamelukes are driven back up a flight of stone stairs.  The writer Stendhal described the painting thus...'Imagine a nest of vipers discovered when an antique vase is picked up.  Only with difficulty is it possible to follow the same body.  To look at it for any length of time is to become lost in it.'

Anne- Louis Girodet-Trioson.  The Revolt at Cairo 1810
While the handling of some of the faces and the odd way the running of the charging dragoon is depicted certainly look mannered and unrealistic, on the whole the effect is very compelling, the amber light and detail drawing you in like a puzzle.  You see more and more detail, and more excellence in the way clothing and equipment is handled; it tells a story for each figure.

But before we get carried away, there is the matter of Scene of a Deluge.  I said at the beginning that I thought Girodet had painted the unintentionally funniest picture ever, and I site Scene of a Deluge as being that picture.  This is not just any deluge, its not one of those days where you're caught in the rain and the raindrops come down so fast they seem to bounce on the pavement.  No, this is a Biblical deluge which seems to have taken place very suddenly.  So suddenly, in fact, its as if you were walking down the street, and the next moment found yourself floating in the middle of the Atlantic.  It is again an enormous canvas (this time it's fourteen feet three and a quarter inches by eleven feet nine and three quarter inches) just so the enormity of this flood can be properly shown.

  It depicts a large naked and muscular young man clinging for dear life onto a jutting crag of sharp edged rock, while around his neck a decrepit old man hangs on with a strangulating neck lock, as his huge cloak billows in the wind.  He is also naked, but although he forgot to put on his heavy weather gear, he did remember to grab a small bag of valuables which he grips in his skeletal fist.  Beneath the rock, just lapping at their feet the stormy waves of the flood can be seen in which the head and shoulders of a drowned man are visible.  As if these gentlemen don't have enough troubles, the young man is holding on to a young woman with his right hand - her feet have just gained a precarious purchase on the rock.   He has a grip on her right arm, but unfortunately for her this isn't all that helpful as she has a couple of pesky kids, and one of them is hanging from her hair.  Yes, while she holds the one crying babe in her left arm, the other older boy is hanging on her hair over the water, pulling her head right back at a neck snapping angle.

Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson. Scene of a Deluge. 1806
Could things get any worse?  Well yes actually they can, for I didn't mention that the young man is supporting them all by hanging onto a tree branch - a tree branch that is slowly cracking and splintering.  Phew - no wonder he has that particular expression on his face - as if he doesn't know which way to look.  Its true, when things go wrong, they really go wrong.  And around them the sky is filled with lightning bolts and rain.

The critics weren't kind.  '...Slick glassy paint, dull colours, and leaden shadows...' said
François Benoît in 1897, and of course Girodet's old tutor David had a grumble about it too, the essence of which can be pretty well summed up as - 'these young painters today; I don't know what the worlds coming to, where will it all end?

But it does bring us back to that statement of Girodet's quoted at the top of the page, 'if I end up badly, then it is my own fault'  At least he was determined to go his own way, and do what he wanted to do, and I suppose we can't fault him on that

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  1. The deluge looks to me like it is heavily plagiarising elements of Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling .... but the Cairo revolt would certainly make a marvellous jigsaw puzzle :-) What's with the naked guy? And as for the strategically placed wisp of fabric ...

  2. Hi Madwippet

    You're probably right about the influence of Michelangelo, these painters would have been encouraged to study his work closely and emulate his manner, usually with a little more gravitas.

    As for the Revolt at Cairo - again they were encouraged to try to show warfare in a classical sense, with naked warriors and so on, but I think that this is a pretty good work whether or not the spectator agrees with the theme. But you're right - there always is a convenient whisp of cloth in just the right place! How does that happen?