Thursday, February 12, 2009

Comments on Gericault's Heroic Landscapes

I was recently reading The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Winter 1990/91 Gericault's Heroic Landscapes: The Times of the Day. I bought several of these bulletins at the latest library sale at the LaCrosse Public Library and are reading them before posting them on Ebay. (If I kept every book I have read, my house would collapse from the weight!)
In 1989, The MMA acquired Gericault's Evening: Landscape with an Acquaduct. This prompted the writing of this article about Gericault's landscape painting in general and the series The Times of the Day in particular. Gericault (1791-1824) is better known for his paintings of horses, soldiers and other human figures. His signature work is The Raft of the Medusa, (1818, 16.3 feet by 23.66 feet). FYI: The Medusa was a French frigate that foundered off of the coast of West Africa. 250 of the officers and crew went into the boats and the 150 civilian passengers were put on a makeshift raft. The raft was supposed to have been towed by the boats but the captain abandoned them. After 18 days, another ship rescued only ten survivors. Two of these survivors were educated men and published an expose accusing the captain of the Medusa of murder, leaving the civilians to death by thirst, starvation, madness and cannibalism. This was sensational and prompted Gericault a reason for a painting to show strong emotions and displays of male anatomy.
Many contemporary critics found it ugly and corrupting, not beautiful and uplifting.
Now back to the Times of the Day series, There are three known paintings by Gericault in this series; Morning: Landscape with Fishermen (Munich, Neue Pinakothek), Noon: Landscape with a Roman Tomb (Paris, Musee du Petit Palais) and Evening: Landscape with an Acquaduct (NYC, Metropolitan Museum of Art). For this series to be complete there should have been a fourth painting for Night, but the only evidence is a statement by a very old art dealer that he sold Night to a collector in Rio de Janiero in 1949, but had no photographs, only a crude drawing as evidence. Research has shown that three canvases matching the dimensions of the known paintings were delivered to the artist's studio in 1818. He may have planned a fourth but got distracted by another project, The Raft of the Medusa. (In my opinion a good thing, The Raft of the Medusa worked to Gericault's strengths and interests, as a landscape painter he is rather mediocre.)
The Times of the Day is not an original idea with Gericault, it was a common theme for paintings and prints during the previous century. Gericault's paintings were the last known series done on this theme.
One thing must be made clear: these paintings were not portraits of any particular location, mostly generalized Italian views. The artist spent two years in Italy, but did very little landscape sketching, most of his time was spent studying works in collections. Indeed, much of the official art of the time disdained working from nature (except for figure drawing) and insisted on using past painters like Poussin, Claude, and others as models. The French were very fond of hierarchy in art by putting history painting at the top with portraits, landscapes and still life at the bottom. Even though to our eyes, The Raft of the Medusa would be considered a history painting, it featured contemporary events in contemporary dress. The pundits of the time insisted that in order to be serious art, contemporary historical figures should be dressed in classical costume and related to ancient history to be legitimate. This has led to curious pieces like George Washington dressed in a toga!

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