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DAVID, DELACROIX AND REVOLUTIONARY FRANCE
by N.F. Karlins
 
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One of the cheeriest faces in New York right now can be found at the Morgan Library & Museum, in an exhibition of drawings on loan from the Musée du Louvre. It’s Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s black-and-white chalk rendering of his pupil, fellow artist and eventual lover, Constance Mayer, dating from around 1804. She seems almost bursting with devotion and joy.

Yet she appears in the exhibition, "David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre.” The show is a survey of works produced during years of political turmoil that stretched from 1774, with the ascension to the throne of King Louis XVI, through the French Revolution, Napoleon’s Consulate, Empire, abdication and exile, the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy, the Second Republic under Louis Napoleon, and ending finally with his becoming Napoleon III in 1852.

Happily, the exhibition encompasses not just political works, but all sorts of drawings from the period, larding the selection with a generous number of sheets by Jacques-Louis David, Prud’hon, Ingres, Géricault and Delacroix. It would be very difficult to see only the works referring to political upheavals and war, even indirectly, in this show, without the leavening of other types of drawings.

Military and political might are joined in works like David’s The Emperor Napoleon I Crowning Himself, The Pope Seated Behind Him (ca. 1806), a graphite drawing for a commemorative painting that was never executed. One look at the brash gesture and brutish face of Napoleon may have inspired others to suggest a different composition. The painting with the same title in the Louvre actually shows Napoleon crowning Josephine, a much less inflammatory idea.

Injured Turk, Falling Backward (1810) by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson is a study for a huge history painting depicting The Revolt at Cairo, an uprising that took place during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. The beautifully colored drawing in chalk and pastel is transformed in the finished painting, disappearing within a swirling press of bodies, some with bared limbs, and others exotically dressed, like this turbaned Turk.

François Marius Granet, an under-appreciated draughtsman, has created some of the most expressive landscapes of the 19th century, although he’s best known for historical works, church interiors and monuments. It’s wonderful to see three landscapes by him, all far removed from the battlefield or throne room. His View of Rome from the Piazza Trinita dei Monti at Sunset from the early 1800s, deftly executed with brown wash, is so atmospheric that you can almost feel the chill of descending night when admiring it. His Quay on the Seine with a Barge, Effect of Mist (1843) has a Whistler-like delicacy in its distant bridge in fog, while his The Stairs of a Hundred Steps at Versailles (1838) offers an intimate view of one of the least intimate spaces on the planet.

Ten sheets by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres range from a Neoclassical subject to studies for his famously erotic The Turkish Bath, but the most interesting works are his pencil portraits, with which he supported himself for some time while courting fame as a history painter. His famous studies for the portrait of the influential newspaper man Louis-François Bertin from 1832 have been seen here regularly, but the addition of Madame Bertin, also from 1832, shows how much more incisive Ingres could be.

Madame Bertin seems to have captivated him, although she appears overweight and trussed up in the curls and fashions of the day. Ingres portrays the unattractive woman in extreme detail, every flaw exposed. He depicts her as cognizant of exactly how much her intellect overshadowed her physical charms, completely at ease with the results, book in hand.

Ingres was the leader of Neoclassicism, one of the two major schools of the day, and the enemy of Romanticism, whose leader, Delacroix, had a greater understanding of Ingres’s work than many more stringent Neoclassicists. “David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France” makes a point of how Neoclassicism and Romanticism were most often to be found intertwined, appearing in various combinations and mutations throughout the period.

Théodore Géricault, for example, may have studied figure composition with a Neoclassicist, yet his interest in the untamed and violent made him one of the first Romantic painters. A figure study (1817-19) for his well-known masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa, in which survivors of a shipwreck were abandoned by the captain and found on a raft, is one of hundreds that he made over the eighteen months he worked on his startling painting. The work’s dead and dying bodies shocked the public, while artists questioned if something so grotesque could be called art.

A life-long lover of horses, Géricault died at only 32, the result of a fall from a horse and tuberculosis. Many of his best paintings feature horses or other animals. His delight in the power of the horse versus rider can be seen in his Horse Market: Five Horses at the Stake (ca. 1817) in which three men struggle to control five steeds. A sheet of sketches of cats, both snarling, teeth-bared small cats and a leopard or wildcat, illustrates his fascination with rage and resentment. But Géricault’s most poignant drawing is undoubtedly The Artist’s Left Hand (1824), one of several he made on his deathbed.

Eugène Delacroix, who was a friend of Géricault and had posed for one of the figures in his Raft of the Medusa, was acclaimed as the leader of Romanticism. A study for his most famous painting, Liberty Leading the People (ca. 1830), an allegorical painting celebrating the July Revolution of 1830, features a less-than-classical goddess with bared breasts who wears a Phrygian cap, symbolic of freedom. The study combines ideas taken from Neoclassicism with the passions of Romanticism. It is worth noting that this representation of Liberty eventually led to our more conventionally-draped Statue of Liberty at the end of the 19th century.

War in a Chariot Pulled by Two Horses, dating from the early 1830s, is an energetic study by Delacroix for an allegory on the ceiling of the King’s salon, which looks dull in comparison to this turbulent pen-and-ink sketch.

A drawing by Honoré Daumier, dating from around 1870, ends the show. Centaur Abducting a Woman, rendered in pen and ink and wash, may refer to Nessus abducting Hercules’ wife, Delaneira. Although its date falls a bit outside the scope of the exhibition, its wiry line vividly embodies a desperation that may have been inspired by the next major convulsion in France, the Franco-Prussian War.

"David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre," Sept. 23-Dec. 31, 2011, Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016.


NANCY KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.