June 2006


Girodet: Romantic Rebel
Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 24 - August 27, 2006
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, October 12, 2006 - January 21, 2007

Girodet--A Long-Forgotten Romantic

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Romanticism in all its complexity--and apparent contradictions--can be savored in Girodet: Romantic Rebel, a major exhibition recently on view at the Art Institute in Chicago (where I saw it) and now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Devoted to the work of the French painter Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824), this retrospective of more than a hundred paintings and drawings serves as a generous introduction to American museumgoers of an artist much acclaimed in his own time and place but largely unknown today.

Girodet's prodigious talent was recognized early. At the age of six, he was taking drawing lessons from a local master in the Loiret region where he was born. By the time he was seventeen he had entered the Paris atelier of the leading painter of the day, Jacques-Louis David--where he remained for five years, during the fertile period in which David produced such masterpieces as The Oath of the Horatii and The Death of Socrates . At twenty-two, Girodet won the coveted Prix de Rome, and immediately began to abandon the Neoclassicism of his illustrious teacher (though he surprisingly reverted to it in his last major painting, a huge--and to my mind rather sappy--Pygmalion and Galatea [1813-14]).

Girodet's monumental image of The Dead Christ Supported by the Virgin (also called The Entombment), dated 1789, still exhibits some of the clarity and simplicity of David's style yet already reveals the heightened sense of drama that would characterize his later work. The two swooning figures in stark isolation, highlighted against the obscurity of a mysterious cavern, seem to owe as much to Caravaggio, however, as to David. Truly godlike in its proportions, the magnificent figure of Christ attests to Girodet's mastery of anatomy and draftsmanship. His solid academic grounding served him well.

That heroic figure of Christ presents a striking contrast with the androgynous male nude depicted by Girodet only a few years later in The Sleep of Endymion, a work that understandably created a sensation when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1793. As a slyly lascivious Cupid pulls aside a bush to admit the entry of the goddess Diana--transformed by the painter into a dazzling beam of moonlight--the languorous, fleshy form of the sleeping Endymion passively submits to her implied embrace. The erotic charge of this work is palpable, and far removed from the noble Republican sentiments of David's politically inspired works of only a decade earlier--a contrast all the more remarkable when one considers that the French Revolution, with which Girodet fully sympathized, was at a fever pitch in 1793, the year in which Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined.

The poetic imagination and eroticism evident in Girodet's Endymion are characteristic of much of his later work. Elements of myth and fantasy were sometimes exploited with reckless abandon--as in The Spirits of French Heroes Welcomed by Ossian into Odin's Paradise (1801), which mingles facts of French military history with elements of the purported "legend" of Ossian. That painting, while a tour de force of both painting and imagination, will probably seem over the top to many viewers today. But some of Girodet's more intimate works may have broader appeal. His Burial of Atala (based on Chateaubriand's tale about a maiden in the American wilderness who chooses Christian faith over mortal love)--enormously popular in the nineteenth century--retains its dramatic effect. The limp figure of Atala, in all her shining purity (albeit of rather nondescript countenance), is suspended between the grieving form of her would-be lover--who clutches her legs in a desperate final embrace--and the austerely cowled monk who is about to lower her gently into her grave.

Numerous other pairs of lovers depicted by Girodet were inspired by classical myth rather than by Christian literature. They include such drawings as a sensuous Leda and the Swan and a luscious sketch for The Abduction of Europa. Another, more ethereal, drawing, based on the Ossian "legend," is The Spirits of Evirallina and Oscar Gliding in the Evening Wind. Like Girodet's Aurora and Cephalus (not in the exhibition), it seems to prefigure the levitating Lovers of Marc Chagall. Such smaller studies often prove more satisfying than Girodet's finished paintings of the same subjects. If you visit the exhibition, compare, for example, Girodet's oil sketches for the Four Seasons with the slickly finished but much less vibrant canvases based on them, for the Royal Palace of Aranjuez.

There are other, quite different sides to this multitalented painter, however. The commanding central figure of his Hippocrates Refusing the Gifts of Artaxerxes recalls the nobility of David's Socrates, if rather more flamboyant in its dramatic staging. So, too, Girodet's justly celebrated Portrait of Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley, a former Senegalese slave who had worked to abolish slavery in the colonies, bespeaks a concern for more than the private, seductive pleasures of the flesh. Elegantly posed before a bust of the influential French abolitionist Guillaume Thomas Raynal, Girodet's Belley is an imposingly virile presence--one among many impressive portraits he made of the prominent men and women of his day.

Of all the works in this exhibition, however, it was the artist's arresting portraits of himself and his adoptive family that I found most affecting. Blessed with heart-stopping good looks, Girodet seems to epitomize the Romantic age in his oil Self-Portrait of 1795, with its forthright gaze and free-spirited attire. Even more remarkable is a charcoal sketch in full profile (how he managed that feat is not at all clear!), done twenty years later. Still more compelling were the series of intimate portraits he painted of his adoptive father, the Doctor Trioson (believed by some to have been Girodet's natural father), and the physician's young son--which were tastefully gathered together in one small room of the exhibition at the Art Institute.

The sensitivity and benevolence of the physician are evident in the Portrait of Doctor Trioson in a White Frock Coat (1802). And the tender gaze of a solicitous father (bending over a large globe with his son) illuminates The Geography Lesson (1802), the last of three paintings Girodet made of the boy. In the first of the series, Benoît-Agnès Trioson Reading a Book (1798), a sweet-faced lad of seven or eight has wistfully put aside his childish toys to turn to the pages of a biblical tome almost as big as he. Two years later, he is depicted Studying His Latin Grammar Book (1800)--more accurately, not studying it, as the book hangs loosely in one hand and he rests his head on the other, as he dreamily stares off into space. (For images of those two works, scroll down through Selected Works and click on thumbnails.) By The Geography Lesson, however, he has matured into a young gentleman, attentive to worldly demands, and clearly the pride and joy of his father's life. (How one reviewer, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, could read "contained exasperation" in the good doctor's expression eludes me.) This series is rendered all the more poignant by the knowledge that Benoît-Agnès died not long after. It is a touching reminder of the private dimension of life in that turbulent and publicly momentous era. Such works more than justify remembering this forgotten Romantic.

Girodet: Romantic Rebel was first on view at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, from September 22, 2005, to January 2, 2006, and at the Art Institute of Chicago, from February 11 to April 30, 2006.