Academic art and history painting

Academic art and history painting

  • The Romans of decadence.

    COUTURE Thomas (1815 - 1879)

  • Century of Augustus: birth of N.S. Jesus Christ.

    GEROME Jean-Léon (1824 - 1904)

  • Reception of the Grand Condé by Louis XIV

    GEROME Jean-Léon (1824 - 1904)

  • The Excommunication of Robert the Pious, 998.

    LAURENS Jean-Paul (1838 - 1921)

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Title: The Romans of decadence.

Author : COUTURE Thomas (1815 - 1879)

Creation date : 1847

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 472 - Width 772

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 92-000335 / INV3451

The Romans of decadence.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

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Title: Century of Augustus: birth of N.S. Jesus Christ.

Author : GEROME Jean-Léon (1824 - 1904)

Creation date : 1855

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 620 - Width 1015

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage place: Picardy Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 97-023474 / RF1983-92

Century of Augustus: birth of N.S. Jesus Christ.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

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Title: Reception of the Grand Condé by Louis XIV

Author : GEROME Jean-Léon (1824 - 1904)

Creation date : 1878

Date shown: 1674

Dimensions: Height 96.6 cm - Width 139.7 cm

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 04-515551 / RF2004-15

Reception of the Grand Condé by Louis XIV

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

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Title: The Excommunication of Robert the Pious, 998.

Author : LAURENS Jean-Paul (1838 - 1921)

Creation date : 1875

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 130 - Width 218

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 05-521849 / RF151

The Excommunication of Robert the Pious, 998.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: February 2011

Historical context

History painting, a noble genre

When he formulated the theories of classicism in 1667, André Félibien placed history painting at the top of the hierarchy of genres. In the XIXe century, a time when history held a crucial place both in romantic culture and in political usage, this genre, still considered as noble par excellence, remains one of the foundations of academic education.

At the School of Fine Arts, learning the technique is supplemented by theory courses, including courses in general history, antiquity and archeology. Particularly abundant during the first half of the 19th centurye century, state commissions helped to prolong the supremacy of historical themes. However, the second half of the century sees the academic hierarchy of genres fade when history painting evolves in a more intimate direction, becomes more human by opening up to the anecdote, which allows it to get closer to an audience she had long since moved away from.

Image Analysis

An increasingly anecdotal style

At the beginning of the XIXe century, the neoclassicals, David's heirs, are part of the continuity of their master. Bitter defenders of the academic tradition, they continue to extol history painting which they use for edification purposes. For these painters, it is a question of illustrating a moral lesson, of staging virtues, of idealizing the heroes or of stigmatizing the mores of their time. Thomas Couture (1815-1879) thus conquered fame with The Romans of Decadence, monumental canvas painted in 1847. Through this orgy scene inspired by the verses of Juvénal ("Crueler than war, vice has descended on Rome and avenges the vanquished universe"), this student of Gros wanted allude to the moral decadence that reigns under the July Monarchy, weakened by a series of scandals. In this realistic allegory, the painter uses the end of a world to criticize his own.

Far from this edifying vision of history, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) is a fervent follower of archaeological reconstruction. His taste for detail and his thoroughness make him the champion of realistic painting. Following a state commission for the Universal Exhibition of 1855, his canvas Century of Augustus: birth of N. S. Jesus Christ is part of the tradition of great historical painting. Inspired by a passage by Bossuet on the Pax romana under Augustus and theApotheosis of Homer by Ingres, one of Gérôme's masters, this painting aims to give the viewer the feeling of being a direct witness to the past.

The mixed success of the Century of Augustus: birth of N. S. Jesus Christ then pushes Gérôme to focus on the short story. In 1878, he painted as The Reception of the Grand Condé by Louis XIV at Versailles, work of imposing dimensions. Through such a subject - the late allegiance of the Prince of Condé to his sovereign - it is the comedy of power, well known to him, that the painter wants to stage in the most vivid way possible. The monumental staircase of the Ambassadors, demolished under Louis XV and scrupulously reconstructed by Gérôme, organizes the entire composition in a theatrical way. Varied in size, the rich costumes testify both to his knowledge and to his penchant for anecdote. This taste for reconstruction and precision is found in the paintings where Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921) illustrated historical subjects.

Unlike Gérôme, Laurens favors tragic subjects which involve characters whose feelings he seeks to translate, thus in The Excommunication of Robert the Pious, dated 1875. In this famous work, the painter depicted the moment when, in 998, Robert the Pious had just been excommunicated for refusing to repudiate his second wife, Bertha. Left alone with her, the king stares into the void, in the grip of a terrible dilemma, while the Pope's representatives leave the throne room. On the ground lie the scepter he dropped from his hands as well as the still smoking candle that was blown out and placed on the ground according to the symbolic ritual of excommunication. This subject is an opportunity for Laurens to denounce the religious intransigence of past centuries and of his time as well as to show his knowledge of medieval architecture in his meticulous representation of the portal through which the bishops exit.

Interpretation

Renewal of history painting

These works by Gérôme and Laurens are a good illustration of the development that has affected historical painting since the Restoration. Discredited for its pompous and idealizing dimension which alienated it from the general public, it could only be temporarily saved by a relaxation of the boundaries between genres and by the contamination of genre painting.

Paul Delaroche was the first to attempt to make historical fact more accessible through archaeological realism and the expression of human feelings. Gérôme and Laurens, who both greatly admired him, explored the paths traced by this painter, each humanizing historical painting in their own way.

Their approach must be put in parallel with the renewal of the historical approach in the XIXe century. From now on considered as a scientific discipline in its own right, history undergoes profound changes under the influence of the great historians of the Romantic period, Augustin Thierry and Jules Michelet in particular (of which Gérôme and Laurens were regular readers, the latter especially, who illustrated the Stories from Merovingian times by Thierry). Breaking with the moralizing tradition, these historians intend to privilege the critical study of sources and raise history to the level of pure science, while adopting a very lively narration of the facts.

The positivist school, which appeared in the last third of the XIXe century, reinforces the need to write an objective history, centered on events and archival documents. If history painting then found a second wind thanks to this new approach, noticeable for example in the paintings of Laurens, it fell into disuse in the following century.

  • Acadamy of Arts
  • antiquity
  • fireman (art)
  • biblical character
  • Jesus Christ
  • rome price
  • Grand Condé

Bibliography

Laurence DES CARS, Dominique DE FONT-RÉAULX and Édouard PAPET (eds.), Exhibition catalog Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). History on show, Orsay Museum, Paris, October 19, 2010 - January 23, 2011, Paris, Orsay-Skira-Flammarion Museum, 2010.

Laurence DES CARS and Alain DAGUERRE DE & NBSP; HUREAUX (dir.), Exhibition catalog Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921). Painter of history, Musée d´Orsay, Paris, October 6, 1997 - January 4, 1998, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, February 2-May 4, 1998, Paris, R.M.N., 1997.

Albert BOIME, Thomas Couture and the eclectic vision, New Heaven-London, Yale University Press, 1980.

To cite this article

Charlotte DENOËL, "Academic art and history painting"

Glossary

  • Fireman: Adjective which ironically designates the official art of the second half of the 19th century. The term refers to the firefighters who monitored the Show. Their helmets and colorful uniforms recalled the taste of these academic artists for fanciful representations of Antiquity.

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