29.1^Heroic Themes in Art^-1^-1^,B5.51,B5.52,B5.53,B5.54,B5.55,B5.57,^31389^31457%
Heroic Themes in Art
Classification: Heroic Themes in Art
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Gros and the Glorification of the Hero

Among the principal themes of Romantic art were those that glorified creative individualism, patriotism, and nationalism. Napoleon Bonaparte, the foremost living hero of the age and the symbol of French nationalism, was the favorite subject of many early nineteenth-century French painters. His imperial status was celebrated in the official portraits executed by his “first painter,” Jacques-Louis David (see Figure 28.2); but the heroic dimension of his career was publicized by yet another member of his staff, Antoine-Jean Gros (1775–1835). Gros' representations of Napoleon's military campaigns became powerful vehicles of political propaganda.

Gros was a pupil of David, but, unlike David, he rejected the formal austerity of Neoclassicism. In his monumental canvas, Napoleon Visiting the Plague Victims at Jaffa (Figure 29.2), Gros converted a minor historical event—Napoleon's tour of his plague-ridden troops in Jaffa (in Palestine)—into an exotic allegorical drama that cast Napoleon in the guise of Christ as healer. He enhanced the theatricality of the scene by means of atmospheric contrasts of light and dark. Vivid details draw the eye from the foreground, filled with the bodies of the diseased and dying, into the background with its distant cityscape.

Figure 29.2
ANTOINE-JEAN GROS, Napoleon Visiting the Plague Victims at Jaffa, 1804. Oil on canvas, 17 ft. 5 in. × 23 ft. 7 in.
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In its content, the painting manifested the Romantic taste for themes of personal heroism, suffering, and death. When it was first exhibited in Paris, an awed public adorned it with palm branches and wreaths. But the inspiration for Gros' success was also the source of his undoing: after Napoleon was sent into exile, Gros' career declined, and he committed suicide by throwing himself into the River Seine.

Popular Heroism in Goya and Géricault

Throughout most of Western history, the heroic image in art was bound up with Classical lore and Christian legend. But with Gros, we see one of the earliest efforts to glorify contemporary heroes and heroic events. The Spanish master Francisco Goya (1746–1828) helped to advance this phenomenon. He began his career as a Rococo-style tapestry designer and came into prominence as court painter to the Spanish king Charles IV. But following the invasion of Spain by Napoleon's armies in 1808, Goya's art took a new turn. Horrified by the guerrilla violence of the French occupation, he became a bitter social critic, producing some of the most memorable records of human warfare and savagery in the history of Western art.

The Third of May, 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid (see Figure 29.1) was Goya's nationalistic response to the events ensuing from an uprising of Spanish citizens against the French army of occupation. In a punitive measure, the French troops rounded up Spanish suspects in the streets of Madrid, and brutally executed them in the city outskirts. Goya recreated the episode with imaginative force, setting it against a dark sky and an ominous urban skyline. In the foreground, an off-center lantern emits a triangular beam of light that illuminates the Spanish rebels: some lie dead in pools of blood, while others cover their faces in fear and horror. Among the victims is a young man whose arms are flung upward in a final, Christlike gesture of terror and defiance. Goya deliberately spotlights this wide-eyed and bewildered figure as he confronts imminent death. On the right, in the shadows, the hulking executioners are lined up as anonymously as pieces of artillery. Emphatic contrasts of light and dark and the theatrical attention to graphic details heighten the intensity of a contemporary political event.

An indictment of butchery in the name of war, The Third of May, 1808 is itself restrained compared to “The Disasters of War,” a series of etchings and aquatints that Goya produced in the years of the French occupation of Spain. “The Disasters of War” have their source in historical fact as well as in Goya's imagination. Brave Deeds Against the Dead (Figure 29.3) is a shocking record of the inhuman cruelty of Napoleon's troops, as well as a reminder that the heroes of modern warfare are often its innocent victims.

Figure 29.3
FRANCISCO GOYA, Brave Deeds Against the Dead, from the “Disasters of War” series, ca. 1814. Etching, 6 × 8¼ in. Goya himself wrote the biting captions for these etchings. Because some of the prints satirized the Church and other bastions of authority, they were not published until thirty-five years after the artist's death.

Goya's French contemporary, Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), broadened the range of Romantic subjects. He found inspiration in the restless vitality of untamed horses and the ravaged faces of the clinically insane. Such subjects, uncommon in academic art, reflect the Romantic fascination with the life lying beyond the bounds of reason. The painting that brought Géricault instant fame was The Raft of the “Medusa.” It immortalized a controversial event that made headlines in Géricault's own time: the wreck of a government frigate called the Medusa and the ghastly fate of its passengers (Figure 29.4). When the ship hit a reef fifty miles off the coast of West Africa, the inexperienced captain, a political appointee, tried ignobly to save himself and his crew, who filled the few available lifeboats. Over a hundred passengers piled onto a makeshift raft, which was to be towed by the lifeboats. Cruelly, the crew set the raft adrift. With almost no food and supplies, chances of survival were scant; after almost two weeks, in which most died and several resorted to cannibalism, the raft was sighted and the fifteen survivors were rescued.

Figure 29.4
THÉODORE GÉRICAULT, The Raft of the “Medusa,” 1818. Oil on canvas, 16 ft. 1 in. × 23 ft. 6 in. Much like the panoramic landscapes of Frederic Church, Géricault's painting became an object of popular display and entertainment. Exhibited in London, it drew some 40,000 visitors between June and December 1820.

Géricault (a staunch opponent of the regime that appointed the captain of the Medusa) was so fired by newspaper reports of the tragedy that he resolved to immortalize it in paint. He interviewed the few survivors, made drawings of the mutilated corpses in the Paris morgue, and even had a model of the raft constructed in his studio. The result was enormous, both in size (the canvas measures 16 feet 1 inch × 23 feet 6 inches) and in dramatic impact. In the decade immediately preceding the invention of photography, Géricault provided the public with a powerful visual record of a sensational contemporary event. He organized the composition on the basis of a double triangle: one triangle is formed by the two lines that stay the mast and is bisected by the mast itself, the other by the mass of agitated figures, culminating in the magnificently painted torso of a black man who signals the distant vessel that will make the rescue. Sharp diagonals, vivid contrasts of light and dark (reminiscent of Caravaggio), and muscular nudes (inspired by Michelangelo and Rubens) heighten the dramatic impact of the piece.

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Géricault's Raft elevated ordinary men to the position of heroic combatants in the eternal struggle against the forces of nature. It celebrated their collective heroism in confronting deadly danger, a theme equally popular in Romantic literature, and, as with Turner's Slave Ship and Goya's Third of May, it publicly protested an aspect of contemporary political injustice. In essence, it brought together the reality of a man-made disaster and the more abstract theme of the Romantic sublime: the terror experienced by ordinary human beings in the face of nature's overpowering might.

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Delacroix and Revolutionary Heroism

While Goya and Géricault democratized the image of the hero, Géricault's pupil and follower Eugéne Delacroix (1798–1863) raised that image to Byronic proportions. A melancholic and an intellectual, Delacroix shared Byron's hatred of tyranny, his sense of alienation, and his self-glorifying egotism—features readily discernible in the pages of his journal. Delacroix prized the imagination as “paramount” in the life of the artist. “Strange as it may seem,” he observed, “the great majority of people are devoid of imagination. Not only do they lack the keen, penetrating imagination which would allow them to see objects in a vivid way—which would lead them, as it were, to the very root of things—but they are equally incapable of any clear understanding of works in which imagination predominates.”

Delacroix loved dramatic narrative. He drew sensuous and violent subjects from contemporary life, popular literature, and ancient and medieval history. A six-month visit in 1831 to Morocco, neighbor of France's newly conquered colony of Algeria, provoked a lifelong interest in exotic subjects and a love of light and color. He depicted the harem women of Islamic Africa, recorded the poignant and shocking results of the Turkish massacres in Greece, brought to life Dante's Inferno, and made memorable illustrations for Goethe's Faust (see Figure 28.5). His paintings of human and animal combat, such as Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains (Figure 29.5), are filled with fierce vitality. Such works are faithful to his declaration, “I have no love for reasonable painting.” In his journal, Delacroix defended the artist's freedom to Romanticize form and content: “The most sublime effects of every master,” he wrote, “are often the result of pictorial licence; for example, the lack of finish in Rembrandt's work, the exaggeration in Rubens. Mediocre painters never have sufficient daring, they never get beyond themselves.”

Figure 29.5
EUGÈNE DELACROIX, Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains, 1863. Oil on linen, 36⅜ × 29⅜ in. The composition is built on a series of diagonals that lead the eye from foreground to background so as to take in each aspect of the skirmish. Note how Delacroix has used the color red to reinforce dramatic movement.

Delacroix's landmark work, Liberty Leading the People, transformed a contemporary event (the revolution of 1830) into a heroic allegory of the struggle for human freedom (see Figure 29.6). When King Charles X (1757–1836) dissolved the French legislature and took measures to repress voting rights and freedom of the press, liberal leaders, radicals, and journalists rose in rebellion. Delacroix envisioned this rebellion as a monumental allegory. Its central figure, a handsome, bare-breasted female—the personification of Liberty—leads a group of French rebels through the narrow streets of Paris and over barricades strewn with corpses. A bayonet in one hand and the tricolor flag of France in the other, she presses forward to challenge the forces of tyranny. She is champion of “the people”: the middle class, as represented by the gentleman in a frock coat; the lower class, as symbolized by the scruffy youth carrying pistols; and racial minorities, as conceived in the black saber-bearer at the left. She is, moreover, France itself, the banner-bearer of the spirit of nationalism that infused nineteenth-century European history.

Figure 29.6
EUGÈNE DELACROIX, Liberty Leading the People, 1830. Oil on canvas, 8 ft. 6 in. × 10 ft. 7 in.
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Delacroix's painting Liberty Leading the People (Figure 29.6) is often compared with David's The Oath of the Horatii (Figure 29.7) because both paintings are clear calls to heroic action. But in conception and in style, the two paintings are totally different. While David looked to the Roman past for his theme, Delacroix drew on the issues of his time, allegorizing real events in order to increase their dramatic impact. Whereas David's appeal was essentially elitist, Delacroix celebrated the collective heroism of ordinary people.

Figure 29.7
JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID, The Oath of the Horatii, 1785. Oil on canvas, 10 ft. 10 in. × 14 ft.

Delacroix was never a slave to the facts: although, for instance, the nudity of the fallen rebel in the left foreground (clearly related to the nudes of Géricault's Raft) has no basis in fact—it is uncommon to lose one's trousers in combat. The detail serves, however, to emphasize vulnerability and the imminence of death in battle. Stylistically, Delacroix's Liberty explodes with romantic passion. Surging rhythms link the smoke-filled background with the figures of the advancing rebels and the bodies of the fallen heroes heaped in the foreground. By comparison, David's Neoclassical Oath is cool and restrained, his composition gridlike, and his figures defined with linear clarity. Where Delacroix's canvas resonates with dense textures and loose, tactile brushstrokes, David's surfaces are slick and finished.

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Delacroix's Liberty instantly became a symbol of democratic aspirations. In 1884 France sent as a gift of friendship to the young American nation a monumental copper and cast-iron statue of an idealized female bearing a tablet and a flaming torch (Figure 29.8). Designed by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (1834–1904), the Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World) is the “sister” of Delacroix's painted heroine; it has become a classic image of freedom for oppressed people everywhere.

Figure 29.8
FRÉDÉRIC-AUGUSTE BARTHOLDI, Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World), Liberty Island (Bedloe's Island), New York, 1871–1884. Framework constructed by A. G. Eiffel. Copper sheets mounted on steel frame, height 152 ft. While France gave America the statue, it did not provide the pedestal. To assist in raising for the latter, the poet Emma Lazarus was commissioned to write a poem. Her concern for the 2000 Russian-Jewish immigrants arriving monthly in New York inspired the famous lines that begin “Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Heroic Themes in Sculpture

In sculpture as in painting, heroic subjects served the cause of nationalism. The Departure of the Volunteers of 1792 (Figure 29.9) by François Rude (1784–1855) embodied the dynamic heroism of the Napoleonic Era. Installed at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe (see Figure 26.31), which stands at the end of the Champs Elysées in Paris, the 42-foot-high stone sculpture commemorates the patriotism of a band of French volunteers—presumably the battalion of Marseilles, who marched to Paris in 1792 to defend the republic. Young and old, nude or clothed in ancient or medieval garb (a convention that augmented dramatic effect while universalizing the heroic theme), the spirited members of this small citizen army are led by the allegorical figure of Bellona, the Roman goddess of war. Like Delacroix's Liberty, Rude's Classical goddess urges the patriots onward. The vitality of the piece is enhanced by deep undercutting that achieves dramatic contrasts of light and dark. In this richly textured work, Rude captured the revolutionary spirit and emotional fervor of this battalion's marching song, La Marseillaise, which the French later adopted as their national anthem.

Figure 29.9
FRANÇOIS RUDE, La Marseillaise (The Departure of the Volunteers of 1792), 1833–1836. Stone, approx. 42 ft. × 26 ft.

In America, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed the practice of slavery in the United States, was met with a similar outburst of heroic celebration. In the commemorative marble sculpture, Forever Free (1867), a young slave who has broken his chains raises his arm in victory, while his female companion kneels in grateful prayer (Figure 29.10). The artist who conceived this remarkable work of art, Edmonia Lewis (1845–ca. 1885) was the daughter of an African-American father and a Chippawa mother. Like most talented young American artists of this era, Lewis made her way to Europe for academic training. She remained in Rome to pursue her career and gained great notoriety for her skillfully carved portrait busts and allegorical statues, some of which exalted heroic women in biblical and ancient history. Many of her works are now lost and almost nothing is known of her life after 1885.

Figure 29.10
EDMONIA LEWIS, Forever Free, 1867. Marble, height 40½ in.
Science and Technology
1836 Samuel Colt produces a six-cylinder revolver
1841 the breech-loading rifle known as the “needlegun” is introduced
1847 an Italian chemist develops explosive nitroglycerin
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Nineteenth-century nationalism stimulated an interest in the cultural heritage of ethnic groups beyond the European West. Just as Catlin found in the American West a wealth of fascinating visual resources, so Europeans turned to Africa and the East for exotic subjects. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt (1798–1801) had started a virtual craze for things North African, and such interests were further stimulated by the French presence in Algeria beginning in the 1830s. In 1848, the French government abolished slavery in France and all of its colonies.

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (1827–1905), a member of Rude's studio and a favorite exhibitor in the academic Salon of Paris, requested a governmental assignment in Africa in order to make a record of its peoples. The result of Cordier's ethnological studies was a series of twelve busts of Africans and Asians, executed by means of innovative polychrome techniques that combined bronze or colored marble with porphyry, jasper, and onyx from Algerian quarries (Figure 29.11). Cordier's portrait heads reveal a sensitivity to individual personality and a commitment to capturing the dignity of his models. Rather than perceiving his subject as an exotic “other,” he regarded each as a racial type “at the point,” as he explained, “of merging into one and the same people.”

Figure 29.11
CHARLES-HENRI-JOSEPH CORDIER, African in Algerian Costume, ca. 1856–1857. Bronze and onyx, 37¾ × 26 × 14 in. Rich details and sensuous materials characterize Cordier's portraits, which became famous as examples of a new visual anthropology focused on the physical appearance of what he called “the different indigenous types of the human race.”