Art of the 18th Century--5

[ Poussin Lorraine ] [Lebrun Watteau Fragonard ] [ Chardin Boucher ]

[ Gainsborough Canelleto ] [Wright David Vigee le Brun]

No discussion of the 18th century art would be complete without revisiting the Scientific Awakening, Age of Reason, and Enlightenment. Reference has already been made to the influence of Rousseau, for example, on Chardin and Boucher. As well, scientific investigation and mathematics flourished in an age that valued reason over tradition or superstition.. The natural philosophers, as scientists were known, influenced art. Joseph Wright's paintings appealed to burgeoning manufacturing and industrial elites, like Josiah Wedgwood and Richard Arkwright. "To them, Wright's elevation of the theories and inventions of the Industrial Revolution to the plane of history painting was excitingly and appropriately in tune with the future" (Tansey and Kleiner 897).

Joseph Wright (1734-1797)

Wright illustrates his fascination with the "mechanical explanation of the wonders of the clockwork cosmos" (Tansey and Kleiner 896). He experimented with dramatic use of light to focus the viewer's attention and force him to examine each painting closely, as can be seen in Experiment on a Bird with an Airpump (1768.) The glass globe contains a dove, which will die as the air is pumped out to create a vacuum. The little girls show their concern, but the boys watch with fascination. Art historians comment on the 'verisimilitude' of the painting (Witt, et al. 232).

As seen in The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone (1771,) scientists continued to search for the philosopher's stone that would transform base metals into gold. Even the great Newton carried on extensive studies in alchemy.

Wright painted his most famous work, The Orrery between 1764 and 1776. An orrery is a special "technological model to demonstrate the theory that the universe operates like a gigantic clockwork mechanism" (Tansey and Kleiner 896). In this painting, light from a single candle illuminates the mechanism and places in silhouette the figure staring at the model with his back to the viewer. "Awed children crowd close to the tiny metal orbs that represent the planets within the arcing bands that symbolize their orbits" (896). Everyone in the painting, even those in shadow, as the woman to the left, watchs the demonstration with rapt attention.
"Wright has scrupulously rendered with careful accuracy every detail of the figures, the mechanisms of the orrery, and even the blooks and curtain the in shadowy backgtround" (896).


Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

David, the painter-ideologue of the Neoclassical art of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire returns to the classical era historically and artistically (Tansey and Kleiner 916). He rebelled "against the Rococo as an 'artificial taste' and exalted Classical art as...'the imitation of nature in her most beautiful and perfect form.'" (917) He wrote, "'I feed my eyes on ancient statues...'" (917). As a man of his time, he also unabashedly saw a role for art as propaganda, anticipating the role of posters in the Russian and Chinese revolutions. David's influence was enormous!


In The Death of Socrates (1787,) David "explored the theme of injustice by a government fearing the truth..... [It was] celebrated as a manifesto of those virtues...lacking in monarchal France..." (Witt, et al. 294). etc

David's The Oath of the Horatii (1784,) painted before the French Revolution, "reflects his politically didactic purpose, his doctrine of the educational power of Classical form, and his method of composing a Neoclassical picture" (Tansey and Kleiner 917.) He endorsed the Enlightenment belief that art should have a moral purpose, should show "'the marks of heroism and civic virtue'" that would "'electrify...souls, and plant the seeds of glory and devotion to the fatherland'" (917).
The Oath of the Horatii tells a story familiar in the 18th century of the conflict between love and patriotism--first told by Livy, retold by Corneille. In the painting, the three brothers swear on their swords that they will die for the Roman Republic, ignoring the "anguish and sorrow of their sisters." (917-918) With regard to the painting itself, "In a shallow picture box, defined by a severely simple architectural framework, the statuesque and carefully modeled figures are deployed across the space, close to the foreground, in a manner reminiscent of ancient relief sculpture. The rigid and virile forms of the men effectively eclipse the soft curvilinear shapes of the mourning women...." (918)

The Rape of the Sabine Women (1799) shows the influence of Poussin on David. Go back and review Poussin's version of this story. The nudity of the shield-bearing warriors caused a "noisy scandal" (920).

At the exhibition of the painting above, also entitled The Battle of Romans and Sabines, David wrote, "'Antiquity has not ceased to be the great school of modern painters.... We seek to imitate the ancient artists, in the genius of their conceptions, the purity of their design.... Could we not take a step further and imitate them also in the customs and institutions established by them to bring their arts to perfection?'"
(Haberman 110)
Some art historians consider The Death of Marat (1793) to be David's masterpiece. Marat, a radical revolutionary, publisher of the journal L'ami du peuple (Friend of the People,) and personal friend of David, was stabbed to death in his bath by an enraged Catholic from the provinces, Charlotte Corday. David showed Marat in death with "directness and simple clarity" (Tansey and Kleiner 919).
"The cold neutral space above Marat's figure, slumped in the tub, makes for a chilling oppressiveness. Narrative details--the knife, the wound, the blood, the letter...--are vividly placed to sharpen the sense of pain and outrage..." (919). The Death of Marat "is...masterfully composed to present Marat to the French people as a tragic martyr who died in the service of their state. In this way, the painting was meant to function as an 'altarpiece' for the new civic 'religion'..." (919).

Elizabeth Louise Vigée le Brun (1755-1842)

Elizabeth Vigée le Brun was the favorite portraitist of the Queen, Marie Antoinette. Vigée le Brun "is another variation of the 'naturalistic' impulse in eighteenth-century portraiture" (Tansey and Kleiner 899.) Her mood is light-hearted and "echo the serpentine curves beloved by Rococo artists and wealthy patrons..." (899). Though a woman, she achieved, fame, fortune, and financial independence. "She was famous for the force and grace of her of her portraits, especially those of high-born ladies and royalty" (900).

Portraits of Marie Antoinette
1779, left; 1783, right

Marie Antoinette Portrait, 1785

In her Self-Portrait (1790) Vigée le Brun stares out, pausing from her work to confront the viewer. "Hers is the self-confident stance of a woman whose art has won her an independent role in her society." (889) She shows "herself to us in a close-up, intimate view at work on one of the portraits that won her renown, that of Queen Marie Antoinette." (900)

Self-Portrait with her Daughter

Elizabeth Vigée le Brun "...survived the fall of the French aristocracy through her talent, her wit, and her ability to forge connections with those iin power in the post-revolutionary period" (900).


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