Archive for Francois Boucher

“Swan’s Way”: The Many Seductions of Leda

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved

 

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

—William Butler Yeats, excerpted from “Leda and the Swan”

MoreauLeda

Gustave Moreau, Leda and the Swan, 1865-75
Watercolor on paper, 34 x 21 cm
(Gustav Moreau Museum)

Since antiquity, when it was first associated with music (through Apollo), the swan has occupied rich symbolic territory within the annals of art. Other birds may have commanded more visible spots: the dove (peace, the Holy Spirit); the owl (wisdom); the crow (loquacious indiscretion), the peacock (pride), but the swan has adeptly defended a more difficult tract—the duality of human nature.  At once graceful and sinister, placid and nasty, chaste and sexual, poetic and prosaic, the swan has functioned as the representative of hypocrisy.

Leda-and-the-Swan—Sanctuary-of-AphroditeLeda and the Swan, mosaic from Sanctuary of Aphrodite on Palea Paphos, ca. 100-200 CE

The most oft-depicted swan motif in the history of art is of course Zeus’/Jupiter’s “seduction” of Leda—Jupiter, in the guise of a swan and seeking protection from a marauding eagle, “falls into” Leda’s arms. She is married to Tyndareus at the time, so this is an illicit affair. Depending on the version, the union produces either all celebrated offspring—i.e. Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra and Castor/Pollux—or just Helen and Pollux.

Rich with symbolic possibilities, the theme has inspired scores of artists to heights of visual poetry and understandable flights of eroticism.

After Timotheos, Leda and the Swan, AD 1-100
Marble, 52 inches
(The Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Seduction and violation, fidelity, sex, love, and motherhood—Leda has it all.  The comparative ways in which artists through the ages have dealt with the myth illuminate different cultural touch points. But the Leda of art almost always seems to exude the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes with seduction, rather than the deminution, degradation, and shame brought on by violation. Perhaps this is because Leda has been largely rendered by men.

Beyond this, the male pantheon is nearly equally divided between those depicting the act of copulation itself and some other moment, either before—foreplay and caressing—or after—tending the babies.  Interestingly, not until the modern era have female artists in any numbers embraced the theme.

Apparently, the Greeks and Romans did not consider it permissible to depict a women in the act of copulation, so, in the few examples of classical sculpture that have survived, the swan slithers up Leda’s front side, its phallic neck telegraphing the act to come.

Leonardo da Vinci, Leda and the Swan, 1510-1515
Oil on panel, 112 x 86 cm
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

The myth languished until the late Middle Ages, when Humanist rediscovery of classical texts (in this case, Ovid’s Metamorphoses) led to its rejuvenation. Renaissance artists were hugely enthusiastic about Leda, no doubt in part because it allowed them to depict copulation, a most profound human act. The mind-boggling paradox here is that at the time it was acceptable to depict a woman fornicating with an animal, though not with a man.

Many versions echo the Leonardo example above—narrative time has been erased, so that Leda may embrace the swan and her children in a pastoral scene of familial affection. (Note: Leonardo also expressed his naughtier side in this Leda.) Corregio and Pontormo provide further examples of this tradition.

Tintoretto, Leda and the Swan, 1555
Oil on canvas, 162 x 218 cm
(Galleria Uffizi, Florence)

Tintoretto twisted this convention and brought Leda inside, though who can blame him with sumptuous Venetian interiors all around him. The nude defensive gesture and the cage show us that she is protecting Zeus (swan) from being carried away by the eagle (domestic). But it’s hard not to think that Tintoretto is suggesting she might want more of a good thing.

Michelangelo went all the way, so to speak, by throwing Leda’s leg over the slithering swan. He set a more explicit standard and his painting, now lost, inspired numerous copies, most famously Rubens and Bartolomeo Ammanati, who executed the moment in sculptural form.

after Michelangelo, Leda and the Swan, after 1530
Oil on canvas, 105.4 x 141 cm
(National Gallery, London)

Subsequent artists were not so chaste. In the particular work below Boucher focuses greater attention on the sumptuous rippling of the flesh of the women than on the act of seduction/violation. But the painting is still rather tame—the phallic symbolism of the swans neck only hints at what is to come. (Is it too much to wonder about two women and a swan?) Other Bouchers are not so implicit.

Francois Boucher, Leda and the Swan, 1742,
Oil on Canvas, 23 1/8 x 29 1/4″
(Stair Sainty Matthiesen Museum, New York)

In his rendition below, Paul Cézanne used various figural attributes to compositional success. The exaggerated curves in Leda’s body mirror the bird’s graceful neck and arc of its wings; therein Cezanne achieves compositional balance. One senses that the story and its symbolism were of less important to Cézanne than the opportunity to show what he could do with shapes and color schemes. Although the scene isn’t as explicitly sexual as some of the other Ledas, though all those curves suggest enough.

Paul Cézanne, Leda and the Swan, 1880-1882 (best estimate)
Oil on canvas, 59.8 x 75 cm
(The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pa.)

A few years before Cézanne, Moreau painted his Leda series. Drawn to symbolism, Moreau focused predominantly on the union, the sacred marriage of woman and god. Reputedly, it was these paintings inspired Yeat’s poem.

Salvador Dali took a decidedly contemporary approach, linking Leda (a portrait of his wife Gala) to the atomic bomb (dropped on Hiroshima in 1945). Like suspended particles, all elements of the painting float more or less unconnected in space. Nevertheless, the composition is highly-organized, for Dali strictly followed divine proportions. It’s all connected with his deep belief in the efficacy of mathematical ratios. As Dali was deeply religious, this painting could also be interpreted as his version of the annunciation.

Salvador Dali, Leda Atomica, 1949
Oil on canvas
(Teatre-Museu Dalí)

Cy Twombly’s 1962 abstract version is powerful visual evocation of motion. One feels the beating of the swans wings, the pumping of the heart, the  flurry of activity inherent in the act of seduction.  On a more literal level, the work ties into the artist’s environment, specifically the graffiti-covered walls of Rome, where he lives.

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, 1962
Oil, pencil, and crayon on canvas, 6′ 3″ x 6′ 6 3/4″
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Marie Laurencin was one of the first modern female artists  to tackle Leda. In her 1923 work, she elicits the protective mother through the tender embrace of the woman’s arm around her swan. Note the calming hand upon on the bird’s back. This painting speaks quietly but convincingly of the nurturing female.

Marie Laurencin, Leda and the Swan, 1923
Oil on canvas, 26 1/2 x 32 inches
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Contemporary women seemed to have pushed the myth beyond conventional interpretive boundaries. In her performances, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta channels the myth through themes of violation, rage and revenge. Contemporary sculptress Barbara Balzer finds the whimsy in a swan literally “coming home to roost.”

LedaBarbara Balzer, Leda and the Swan
Ceramic sculpture.

The male contemporary renditions of the theme are fairly graphic—interestingly Steven Kenny adds a menacing swan, thus straying into the territory violation (though Leda doesn’t resist much).

And then there are the just plain weird interpretations, i.e. Bjork’s 2001 Oscar dress.

21st century Leda—Bjork in a distinctly unsuccessful interpretation.

Certainly, Leda and the Swan provided fodder for much artistic inspiration over the ages. And it’s gotten me thinking about the implications of an ancient myth in today’s cultural milieu.

The Rabbit Hole

More Ledas: Géricault; Pier Francesco Mola; Jean Thierry
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke
“Sculpture by Barbara Balzer: Timeless World of Intellect and Beauty”

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The Paradox of Henri Fantin-Latour

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, Printmaking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

The canvases of M. Fantin-Latour do not assault your eyes, do not leap at you from the walls. They must be looked at for a length of time in order to penetrate them, and their conscientiousness, their simple truth—you take these in entirely, and then you return. — Emile Zola, 1880

Henri Fantin-Latour, Roses in a Glass Vase, 1873
Oil on canvas
(Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, England)

Recently, I’ve been revisiting the art of the still-life, and that pursuit quickly led me the work Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). Fantin-Latour is a bit of an enigma—he produced work in three contradictory styles for his entire artistic career. He was an expert and innovative lithographer, a painter of portraits, self-portraits, flowers and still-lifes, but his least-known and appreciated works are what he called his imaginative compositions. These paintings and lithographs, largely inspired by the music of Wagner, Schumann and Berlioz, were considered by Fantin-Latour to be his most important work.

The flower paintings were painted merely for the steady income they provided, but, ironically, it is these paintings, which capture the essence of flowers in all their ephemeral beauty, that made Fantin-Latour famous. In his book, Atelier de Fantin-Latour, published in 1919, Jacques-Émile Blanche wrote:

Fantin studied each flower, each petal, its grain, its tissue as if it were a human face. In Fantin’s flowers, the drawing is large and beautiful; it is always sure and incisive…It is an individual flower and not simply one of a type…

Henri-Fantin-Latour, Roses de Nice on a Table, 1882
Oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon
(National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour was born in Grenoble in 1836—his father, a painter, moved the family to Paris in 1841. Fantin-Latour lived in Paris most of his life, and the Louvre became the center of his artistic universe. He often said: “Le Louvre, il n’y a que le Louvre.” (The Louvre, there is only the Louvre.) Beginning when he was fourteen, Fantin-Latour entered a professional drawing school, where he studied under Horace Lecoq-de-Boisbaudran, who believed that memory was a spur to the imagination. He would set up a complicated still-life and discuss it with his pupils in elaborate detail. Then he would dismantle the still-life—and the students would begin to paint it from memory. This discipline informed Fantin-Latour’s work for his entire career.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Self-Portrait, 1861
Oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon
(National Gallery of Art,Washington, D.C.)

In 1854, Fantin-Latour attended the École des Beaux Arts on probation for three months, but was not awarded a permanent place. As a result, when he was 17, Fantin-Latour began to spend his days at the Louvre, copying the work of the masters, a practice he continued for many years. This deep study of Delacroix, Boucher, Fragonard, Rembrandt, Watteau, Giorgione, Rubens, Chardin, Hals, Titian and others shows itself throughout all aspects of his work. The Louvre was Fantin-Latour’s refuge, and in many ways his painting feeds more on other paintings than life or nature.

Louise Moillon, Basket of Strawberries and Basket of Plums, 1632
Oil on wooden panel
(Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France)

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Basket of Strawberries, c. 1760
Oil on canvas
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Fantin-Latour also made a thorough study of the entire French school of still-life, especially the great 17th century still-life painter, Louise Moillon and the 18th-century master, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin—whose work Fantin-Latour is often compared to. (There are some very obvious and distinct differences between their work. Among other things, Chardin’s still-lifes have a strict frontality, with the elements of the subject at eye level, and the backgrounds are painted in his signature warm brown tones. Fantin-Latour’s work has a cooler tonality, with the table creating a more diagonal line, and tilted forward, towards the viewer.)

Henri Fanin-Latour, Roses in a Vase, 1872
Oil on canvas
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

It was at the Louvre that Fantin-Latour first met Édouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler, Berthe Morisot—and his future wife, artist Victoria Dubourg.

In 1859, Whistler invited Fantin-Latour to London, where he introduced him to John Everett Millais and other Pre-Raphaelite painters, as well as to Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Edwards. The Edwards bought many of Fantin-Latour’s flower paintings, and found other buyers among their circle, securing him a regular and steady income. Between 1864 and 1896 Fantin-Latour painted over 800 floral portraits, and almost all were purchased in England.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Edwards, 1875
Oil on canvas
(Tate, London)

Fantin-Latour painted roses more than any other flower, but he also painted an enormous variety of old-fashioned cottage garden flowers, such as petunias, hollyhocks, tulips, dahlias, larkspur, forget-me-nots, peonies, sweet peas, hyacinths and cherry blossoms. He favored whites, yellows and pinks because he loved the luminosity of the pastel flowers. He had a deft hand with arranging flowers in a balanced yet naturalistic way, and the paintings, with the flowers silhouetted against a subdued background, have an enveloping atmosphere. They have a musical quality—a harmony of value, color and tone—that creates contrast and depth. Fantin-Latour also beautifully captures the contrasting surfaces of the vases, whether Chinese porcelain, enamel or clear glass.

Henri Fantin Latour, Peonies in a Vase, 1864
Oil on canvas
(The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Petunias, 1881
Oil on canvas
(Detroit Institute of Arts)

Fantin-Latour’s painting career was about perfecting and expanding upon his original ideas. Unlike his friends Degas, Manet, Renoir, and Monet, he had no desire to move forward into new styles: he was content to be a Realist. Fantin-Latour had an essentially different approach to painting from his friends who were experimenting with the melding of technique and subject matter that became Impressionism. Fantin-Latour saw technique as something apart—not an end in itself, or something to be integrated into the subject. Fantin-Latour believed that technique was to be mastered before you approached your subject and that it gave an artist the freedom to delve deeply. In this he was influenced by Courbet, who wrote:

Imagination in art consists in knowing how to find the most complete expression of an existing thing, but never in inventing or creating the thing itself.

Fantin-Latour’s paintings were an eclectic mix—Realism tempered with Naturalism and a deep Romanticism—and a small dose of Impressionism. He also took some ideas from Japanese art and photography, both of which were so influential at that time. From the work of his friend Whistler, he learned about cool harmonies, the use of gray backgrounds, and to occasionally incorporate some Japanese elements.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Still Life with Roses and Torso, 1874
Oil on canvas
(Private Collection)

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White #2, 1864
Oil on canvas
(Tate, London)

In addition to still-lifes and flower paintings, Fantin-Latour painted many portraits and five well-known group portraits. He also painted 21 self portraits, about which he wrote:

He is a model who is always ready, who offers all the advantages, he is punctual, co-operative and one knows him before beginning to paint.

Fantin-Latour was a bit of a loner—in fact, after his marriage he was content to stay in his family circle, joined only by a few close friends. He no longer frequented the artist cafés on the Boulevard St. Germain where he had spent so much time previously. His aloofness often affected his subjects, in some of his portraits you sense a cool distance. However, the portraits of his friends and those within his family circle are especially lovely, particularly his early portraits of his mother or sisters Natalie and Marie, and later his wife’s family. These familial works are dignified, serene and beautifully evocative.

Henri Fantin-Latour, The Two Sisters, 1859
Oil on canvas
(Saint Louis Art Museum)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Charlotte Dubourg, 1882
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Portrait of Manet, 1867
Oil on canvas
(The Art Institute of Chicago)

Fantin-Latour painted five large group portraits, four of which still exist.  The painting below, Homage to Delacroix, was painted a year after the great Romantic painter’s death. Like all of Fantin-Latour’s group portraits, its composition and color palette is a nod to the great 17th century Dutch portraitists, particularly Franz Hals. Among those grouped around a painted portrait of Delacroix (done from a photograph taken ten years before his death) we see Fantin-Latour, in white, and his friends, the poet Charles Baudelaire—who called Delacroix “the most suggestive painter of all”—James Whistler and Édouard Manet.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Homage to Delacroix, 1864
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

The group portrait below includes many of the important poets and writers of the later 19th century, many from the Parnassus poetry group, including (seated, left) Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Missing is Charles Baudelaire, who died in 1867, and Albert Mérat, who, the story goes, refused to be depicted with the transgressive Rimbaud and Verlaine, and was replaced by a large bouquet of flowers.

Henri Fantin-Latour, The Corner of the Table, 1872
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

An Atelier in the Batignolles, below, depicts Fantin-Latour, Claude Monet, Emile Zola, August Renoir and others, gathered around Edgar Manet, seated at his easel—the central figure in what was to become the Impressionist movement. Zola, who was a staunch defender of Manet and his circle against the rampant criticism of the day, wrote:

Around the painter so disparaged by the public has grown up a common front of painters and writers who claim him as a master.

Although Fantin-Latour had not joined Manet and the others in their move towards Impressionism, by painting his Portrait of Manet and this group portrait, which showed these radical young artists to be sincere and respectable, Fantin-Latour was making a strong statement of support.

Henri Fantin-Latour, An Atelier in the Batignolles, 1870
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Fantin-Latour’s intense interest in music began when he first heard Richard Wagner‘s Tännhauser, and it inspired his first image of a musical scene, the first of many done on Wagnerian themes. In 1864 Fantin-Latour said “Schumann is, with Wagner, the music of the future.” When Fantin-Latour traveled to Bayreuth in 1876 to hear one of the first performances of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, he considered it one of the most important events of his life.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Scene from Tannhäuser, 1864
Oil on canvas
(Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Finale from Das Rheingold, c. 1877
Lithograph

Fantin-Latour’s imaginative compositions—the fantasies, allegories and myths, as well as the work inspired by the vocal music of Wagner, Brahms, Berlioz, and Schumann—are the least appreciated of his work. These intensely romantic works carried the most significance and meaning for Fantin-Latour, and it was a sorrow to him that the work got such a mixed reception. The visions that music inspired were also related to color, which he said was “procreative in its nature, giving birth to a thousand things which the eye cannot see and distinct from their cause,” and that spoke “to that region of the imagination which is supposed to be under the exclusive dominion of music.”

On the subject of the musical works, I cannot be objective—the first time I saw Tannhäuser, as a young girl, was for me, as for Fantin-Latour, a life-changing event. As an ardent Wagnerian, I find the images deeply evocative and full of meaning—I can hear the music when I look at them.

Henri Fantin-Latour,Wagner and His Muse, c.1892
Charcoal on paper
(The Louvre, Paris)

Critics complained that the allegorical and mythological works were re-workings of compositions by the old masters and added nothing new. There is no doubt that Fantin-Latour drew on his visual memory from those years spent in close observation at the Louvre when creating these works. I do agree that the accomplished, innovative techniques of the lithographs make them somewhat more interesting than the paintings done in this style. However, it is ironic that while Fantin-Latour’s oeuvre is often criticized for being too much of his time, for not breaking any new ground, these neglected musical and allegorical works were in a sense a pre-cursor of the French Symbolist school of the late 19th century. I hope that even those immune to the charms of these pieces will acknowledge that they are beautifully and skillfully rendered.

Henri Fantin-Latour, The Commemoration, 1876
Oil on canvas
(Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture, Grenoble)

I find the eclectic, paradoxical career of Fantin-Latour to be extremely interesting and refreshing. I admire his idea that painting should not be about schools and movements but individual expression. He is considered a secondary painter because he didn’t found a movement or have a major impact on art history—our contemporary standard of accomplishment or “genius”—but I believe his ability to give shape to what he observed and felt with such clarity and elegance definitely deserves our profound respect and gratitude. His paintings may never have been extolled by the art critics, but he was certainly highly lauded by the writers of his time—including Claudel, Baudelaire, Huysmans and Proust—who praises the paintings of Fantin-Latour in The Guermantes Way. Paul Claudel wrote:

A ravishing still-life by Fantin-Latour; a pitcher of blue glass and fresh-cut flowers; each painting bears a hushed silence that bids us still the inner voice.

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