Archive for Delacroix

Bastille Day & Delacroix’s Erroneous Legacy

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Politics with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2009 by Liz Hager


And, if I haven’t fought for my country, at least I’ll paint for her.
—Eugène Delacroix, October 12, 1830, letter to his brother

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

Eugène Delacroix, July 28: Liberty Leading the People,
1830, oil on canvas, approximately 11.8 x 8.2 feet.
(Louvre, Paris)

Despite the fact that it does not depict the storming of the Bastille, the image most associated in the public’s mind with this pivotal event is Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

The July 14 storming of the Bastille prison by Parisian citizens in 1789 is generally considered to be the start of the French revolution. The riot was more or less a symbolic gesture, as only seven prisoners were held in the Bastille at the time (under Louis XVI’s dictatorial lettres de cachet policy), none them of much political importance. The French Revolution was the first in a series of political upheavals in France that ultimately led to the dissolution of the monarchy and the establishment of the modern system of French Republics.

Liberty Leading the People commemorates the July Revolution of 1830, which toppled Charles X and laid the French monarchy to rest once and for all. Ordered by his brother, Louis XVI, to leave France soon after the fall of the Bastille, Charles eventually returned to Paris to be crowned king in 1824. His short amd inept reign was fraught with controversy. On July 26, 1830, in the wake of rising unrest, Charles issued a series of repressive ordinances, which provoked widespread revolt from the middle class. Thus was established the Second Republic.

In-depth studies of Liberty Leading the People abound. But two aspects are worth mentioning highlighting. First, the effectiveness of the painting’s carefully constructed, muted color scheme, which is punctuated by bright swatches of primary reds, blues and yellows. It simultaneously evokes the realistic haze of a battle site, while issuing rousing and overly romantic call to arms. Then there is the matter of bare-breasted Liberté, who holds the standard aloft. She was to become the standard for Marianne, the unofficial symbol of France, and the purported model for the Statue of Liberty.

Why is she bare-breasted? Many assume that she is an allegory of Greek democracy, and that, as such she naturally mimicked the style of classical Greek statuary. True, Aphrodite (or Venus, the most famous of which is the de Milo) is often depicted bare-breasted.  Yet, the most famous of the Liberté antecedents, Nike, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, is fully-clothed.

Winged Victory (Nike of Samothrace),
ca. 190 BCE, marble, approximately 12 feet high (Louvre, Paris).

It is more likely that Delacroix’s Marianne grew out of Neo-Classical clichés of the sort employed by Delacroix’s teacher, Pierre Narcisse Guérin.

Pierre Narcisse Guérin, Aurora and Cephalus
1810, oil on canvas, approximately 8.4 x 6.1 feet
(Louvre, Paris)

Wider Connections

Eugène Delacroix

French history timeline

July 1830 Revolution

Romanticism in France: Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People


Galloping into History

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on July 1, 2008 by Liz Hager


Muybridge Animated Horse

Eadweard Muybridge, Animation of Galloping Horse (details below)

This week I began work on a series of paintings inspired by the long and multi-faceted relationship between human and horse. As I was researching equine anatomy, my mind wandered to the summer of 1973, when I interned at a regional art museum in the curatorial department. Among other duties, I spent a a good deal of time in the basement workshop making mats for new additions to the museum’s photographic collection. To this day what I remember were the Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) horse motion studies.

The details of Muybridge’s life are well documented—his strange and multiple name changes, a murder rap, the brief career as a fine landscape photographer. Depending on which version of the story you believe in 1872 then-Governor of California Leland Stanford commissioned Muybridge to settle a bet/answer a question about whether a horse does/does not gallop with all four legs off the ground.  The result (below) answered Stanford’s question definitively and caused Muybridge to abandon landscapes for full devotion to the study of locomotion. Art would never be the same.

Eadweard Muybridge, Galloping Horse, 1878, series of 16 photographs, most likely collotypes.

The motion studies have reached mythic proportions in our collective cultural subconscious. Although technically photographs, Muybridge’s serial presentation technique, as well as subsequent animations of the stills, seem to offer us proof of a “big bang” moment in the transition from photography to motion pictures. Whoa Nellie! Not so fast.

Although these studies led to the invention by Muybridge of the zoopraxiscope—a large projector with individual pictures mounted on revolving discs—it turns out that he wasn’t all that interested in the depiction of motion through photography. In his 1958 review in College Art Journal, Beaumont Newhall asserts:

“Muybridge, however, was not interested in the synthesis of motion through photography, and it was left to others to perfect cinematographic techniques. He set himself a double task: the scientific analysis of the mechanism of locomotion in men and animals, and the production of an atlas of photographs, which artists might find useful as substitutes for living models.”

At first, many artists resisted changing the centuries old ways they had depicted motion. (How anatomically quaint Delacroix’s “flying gallop” seems post-Muybridge!) Eventually, however, Muybridge’s oeuvre did become the comprehensive sourcebook for artists, sort of the motion articulation cousin of Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament. Impressionists most vigorously embraced photography as an aid to painting; Degas in particular is known to have modeled several of his racehorse sketches after Muybridge plates.

So in fact Muybridge did gallop off into history, but not on the horse we may have  thought.

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