Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Chess Players by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1853)

We finish would look at the works of Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) with this treasure from 1853, The Chess Players.  This small scale painting (just 9.5x12.5 – slightly larger than the paper in your printer) is quite terrific.  One of the more interesting things about this picture, to my mind, is how Meissonier plays again and again with patterns.

A chessboard has a specific pattern – fair enough. But then see how he buffets this with square shapes representing the ornate room divider, the tapestries, and various pictures scattered about the room.  Also interesting is how he places his major players in the picture – the player on the left poised for attack, the player on the right hesitant, the sleeping dog and table with decanter standing off to the side like unused pieces in a game.  Here is composition as strategy, and it illustrates the keen eye Meissonier had for placement and his very conscious selection of components of a picture.

One of the other fascinating things about this work, when seen opposite some of his other pictures, is the lack of detail.  To be sure the chairs, the clothes, the tables and the dog are all depicted with a photographic sensibility, but Meissonier chooses to uncharacteristically wash-out some of the background detail.  We have only a sense of the tapestries, room divider and surrounding pictures.  I think, though, that this is in keeping with Meissonier’s overall approach to the picture: the “board” is less important than the psychology of the major “pieces.”

Unlike contemporary artists, Meissonier believed in that fine art helped make for a better citizenry.  He wanted art to be an elevating experience, filled with the grandeur of history and the lessons found in heroic deeds.  He consciously spent the later part of his life painting scenes of Napoleonic glory.  Executed with the same fine brushwork and acute attention to detail as his earlier subjects, these scenes from the great days of the French Empire eventually made Meissonier’s works the highest-grossing, most sought-after paintings of any living artist. The largest and most-ambitious of these works, finished in 1875, was Friedland (see below), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It sold for 380,000 francs, more than triple the highest price ever paid for a painting by a living artist.  Unlike his smaller works, Friedland was a large-scale picture which took the artist 14 years to complete.  It is considered by many to be his masterpiece, but I much prefer his smaller, more intimate pictures. 

It is interesting to contrast a picture like The Chess Players with Friedland.  Though both pictures are composition-as-strategy, and involve participation in a game of war, the smaller picture has a warmth, humanity and … sensitivity missing from the larger work.  Perhaps depictions of simple people, living their lives, is the most elevating artistic goal of all.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Card Players by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1872)

We continue our look at some of the work by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) with The Card Players, painted in 1872.  This is a smallish picture, 12x15, and it possesses all the Meissonier trademarks of wit and technical wizardry.

People looking to learn more about Meissonier would do well to read The Judgment of Paris, by Ross King.  (We positively reviewed King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling some time back.)  While pointing out that Meissonier was one of the great losers in art history because his reputation suffered drastically following the rise of Impressionism, Modernism and other “progressive” modes of art that ultimately proved to be our aesthetic, intellectual and cultural downfall, King also rendered the painter as sympathetic and unjustly neglected (and denigrated) by later generations of art historians. 

Here is how King opens his book:  One gloomy January day in 1863, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, the world’s wealthiest and most celebrated painter, dressed himself in the costume of Napoleon Bonaparte and, despite the snowfall, climbed onto the rooftop balcony of his mansion in Poissy… Ernest Meissonier had occupied the Grande Maison for most of the previous two decades.  In his forty-eight year he was short, arrogant and densely bearded: “Ugly, little and mean,” one observer put it, “rather a scrap of a man.”  A friend described him as looking like a professor of gymnastics, and indeed the burly Meissonier was an eager and accomplished athlete, often rising before dawn to rampage through the countryside on horseback, swim in the Seine, or launch himself at an opponent, fencing sword in hand.  Only after an hour or two of these exertions would he retire, sometimes still shod in his riding boots, to a studio in the Grande Maison where he spent ten or twelve hours each day crafting on his easel the wonders of precision and meticulousness that had both made his reputation and his fortune.

Makes the contemporary art world of Damien Hirsts and Tracey Eims seem bloodless and pusillanimous by comparison, doesn’t it?  Ah, at one time the romance of being an artist!

Today’s picture, The Card Players, shares many of the same virtues as yesterday’s picture, The Sergeant’s Portrait.  Both take place in front of brick buildings, complete with windows that are rendered in astonishing detail and realism.  (I especially like the open window, visible through the length of the building from the foreground window!)  Note, too, the ornate carving of the chairs, the tabletop and supports, and the careful delineation of the window shutters and sills.

Again, Meissonier takes particular delight in the clothing of his figures.  Folds of garment, buttons, gauzy cravats and boots are all depicted with great virtuosity and realism without seeming fussy or showy.

But again where Meissonier triumphs is in directing his actors of paint and canvas.  It is clear that that hatless figure on the left has not only lost this game of cards, but that he has lost a great many others previously.  He looks at his opponent with disbelief, sullen resentment and resignation.  Meissonier also places a glass beside him, and a tankard near his hat – implying that he was drinking, as well.  (Is it my imagination, or does resemble the late Boris Karloff?)

His opponent has clearly had better luck with the cards, and gleefully is about to splay them upon the table.  And look at his face:  not only a note of triumph, but the gloating that often comes when we have someone in our power.  It is not a pretty picture of human nature, but it is a masterful painting.

More Meissonier tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Sergeant’s Portrait by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1874)

After our recent survey of works by Leon Cogniet (1794-1880), I thought it would be interesting to look at some pictures by his most successful student, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891). 

Meissonier was born in Lyons, and showed a taste for painting during his early boyhood.  Some of his surviving sketches from 1823 show considerable promise; but his family still placed him with a druggist so he could learn a trade. After a while, he managed to obtain leave from his parents to study art, and thanks to a recommendation from painter Jules Potier, he was admitted to Leon Cogniet’s studio. He paid short visits to Rome and to Switzerland, and exhibited in the Salon of 1831 a picture then called Les Bourgeois Flamands --also known as The Visit to the Burgomaster. It was the first attempt in France in the particular genre which was destined to make Meissonier famous:  miniatures in oils.

Meissonier started working for various publishers, producing highly finished illustrations, while also working on pictures for the Salon (appearing in 1836 with The Chess Players and The Errand Boy). 

Meissonier dabbled unsuccessfully in religious painting, a genre he never really mastered.  But he continued to paint – and his work found great favor with the European public, making him one of the most successful (and wealthiest) painter of his generation.  In 1855 he reached the highest mark of his achievement with The Gamblers and The Quarrel, which was presented by Napoleon III to the English Court.  During the Salon of 1857 he exhibited nine pictures and drawings.

Meissonier was a slow worker, sometimes taking as long as 10 years on a canvas.  Despite his painstaking craftsmanship, he managed to create an astonishing number of pictures: for example, he exhibited 16 pictures to the great exhibition of 1878.

Meissonier eventually moved away from the Salons and sent his work to smaller exhibitions. He made huge amounts of money, and, more important, significant social and political connections.  In 1838, Meissonier married into an artistic family.  He was attached by Napoleon III to the imperial staff, and accompanied him during the campaign in Italy and at the beginning of the war in 1870.  During the siege of Paris in 1871, Meissonier was named a colonel of a marching regiment. In 1840 he was awarded a third-class medal and a second-class medal in 1841; these followed by first-class medals in 1843 and 1844 and medals of honor at the great exhibitions. In 1846 he was appointed knight of the Legion of Honor and later received the Grand Cross in 1889.  And if you doubted that he was the most successful painter of his time – he would have been the first to correct you. 

Today’s picture is not that small – 24x28 – but it does show all of Meissonier’s considerable skill.  Many in today’s contemporary art establishment would say that The Sergeant's Portrait, painted in 1874, was kitsch, but they would be wrong.  Here is a painting of considerable skill, created by a master of composition and with a fine sense of humor. 

Gad … I like this picture.  First off, it shows how seat-of-the-paints informal portraiture of the era truly was.  Artists – or friends and family members with some ability – were often huddled over chairs, trying to capture a likeness.  I particularly like the look of strained concentration of the artist’s face – something you will see on the face of anyone working on a picture.  (Contrast his intensity to the two rather bored, but still judgmental, soldiers looking over his shoulder on the right hand side of the painting, and with the two on the left hand side who are standing by expectantly!  And see the completely disinterested participant, leaning against the wall and idly smoking – a wonderful touch.) 

Perhaps the two figures that make the picture most amusing are those of the model and the dog.  The model stands, hands on hips, knees bents, and perhaps a bit impatient.  The dog, however, looks up at him … wondering just what that fellow he’s looking at is about to do.

Meissonier worked in a manner that prized high finish and depth of detail.  Look, for example, at the brickwork of the building in the background: bits of mortar and subtle gradation of color are evident.  The cobblestones show considerable virtuosity, and I am deeply impressed by the level of detail on the soldiers’ uniforms.  This is a picture that is smart, funny, and brilliantly executed.

More Meissonier tomorrow!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Encores! Presents On Your Toes

“Can a good man love two women at the same time?”

“Only if he’s very good.”

Metropolitan-area theater buffs have no greater gift than the recurring Encores! series at New York City Center.  Under the artistic direction of Jack Viertel and the musicianship of conductor Rob Berman, Encores! recreates lost Broadway musicals, resurrecting the original book and orchestrations.  If you are interested in Broadway musicals – and you know who you are – Encores! is essential.

The third and final production of this, their 20th season, is On Your Toes, with music by Richard Rogers (1902-1979) and lyrics by Lorenz Hart (1895-1943).  It is, in many ways, an atypical show for the Encores! team – unlike most musicals which rely upon dialog or lyrics to tell the story, On Your Toes delivers much of the narrative through dance.  To meet that challenge, director and choreographer Warren Carlyle has altered the usual stage-reading format and delivered a fully-rendered, toe-tapping Broadway show.  The effect is stunning.

On Your Toes will run for only seven performances, from May 8th through the 12th.  On Your Toes is guest-conducted by Encores! founding music director Rob Fisher and the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet, originally choreographed by George Balanchine (1904-1983) is staged by Susan Pilarre, who served as a Ballet Mistress of the show's 1983 Broadway Revival.

The story is simple: Phil Dolan (the radiant Dalton Harrod playing him young, and Shonn Wiley playing him as an adult) is a third generation vaudeville hoofer.  He is sent to school and eventually becomes a music professor.  Through a series of musical-comedy riffs, he ends us presenting his jazz ballet, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, under the auspices of the prestigious, conservative Russian Ballet, romancing both a student (Kelli Barrett) and a temperamental Russian ballerina (Irina Dvorovenko) along the way.  We also get gangsters, ballet-managing socialites and peppy school kids eager to make it in show business.

As is often the case in pop musicals, one of the core conceits is “High Culture” and “Popular Culture” colliding, with Pop Culture proving to be of great value after all.  This was a frequent trope during the Great Depression, when our national popular culture was actually viable, intelligent, energetic, optimistic and communal.  Sadly, the whole idea would be preposterous in this, the final decades of our once thriving culture.

One Your Toes had an interesting gestation in that it was originally intended as a film vehicle for the incandescent Fred Astaire (1899-1987), who rejected the idea.  Astaire thought the convergence of popular dance and ballet too highbrow for film audiences, and also thought that the dowdy professor would be too great a change in his screen image.  Rogers and Hart quickly converted the idea to a Broadway show, where it starred Ray Bolger (1904-1987) in 1936 – giving him a great success. 

What can be said about the Encores! production of On Your Toes other than it is a sheer distillation of joy?  From its opening number – the energetic Two-a-Day For Keith (where Dalton Harrod, who unfortunately disappears for the rest of the show shines magnificently), to the closing Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet (which is filled with both beautiful dance and knock-about comedy), the show is a consistent delight.  Never has Encores! dared so extensive an undertaking; this is a Broadway show in all-but-name.

The cast is uniformly excellent.  Christine Baranski, as socialite and ballet manager Polly Porterfield, is a hoot, adding a bit of New York sophistication and savvy to a showy, supporting part.  Barrett, as girlfriend Frankie Frayne, has a wonderful voice and terrific style – one can only hope that one day an entire show will be built around her.  Irina Dvorovenko as spoiled ballerina Vera Baronova has all the choice lines, and speaks them with such relish I often thought she were tasting them.  Joaquín De Luz, as the lead ballet dancer and jealous rival, dances beautifully and plays comedy with a sure hand – he is a great treat.  Perhaps the one weak link in the cast was Shonn Wiley as the adult Dolan – he is a terrific comic actor, a good dance and adequate singer; one only wishes someone more dynamic took the lead.

If at all possible, do not miss One Your Toes.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The World Loses Ray Harryhausen, Part II

Behold the Ymir!

We continue looking at the work of the late Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), the man who put the “special” in “special effects.”  Harryhausen used the technique called Stop Motion Animation, where he would articulate a puppet (usually about 12 to 18 inches tall) against a miniature backdrop, and move them incrementally while photographing them … one frame at a time.  It was an exacting, exhausting, isolating craft, but one that he mastered in the course of a distinguished career. 

I was lucky enough to be acquainted with Harryhausen, and had met him or wrote to him on-and-off for the last 25 years or so.  My fondest memory of him was when we were invited to join he and his wife, Diana, for a private tour of the Smithsonian’s dinosaur collection provided by paleontologist Michael Brett-Surman, an avowed Harryhausen fan.  Harryhausen was delighted to be accorded such an honor, and the thing I most remember is that he was as excited as a young boy about it all, though he was then a man in his 70s.  (When done, we all went out for hamburgers, which, after dinosaurs, monsters and his wife Diana, seemed to be the great love of his life.)

I think it was this sense of wonder that is the signature note of Harryhausen’s work.  Unlike most grim and gritty fantasy fare today, Harryhausen showed audiences the fantastic, and made it fun.  He was also keenly aware that stop motion animation did not have the “realism” of later techniques, such as Computer Generated Images (CGI) used today.  But Harryhausen always maintained that special effects were a tool, and not an end to themselves.

He also thought that special effects had no obligation to look “real.”  Movies – particularly movies about dinosaurs and aliens, Moon people and mythical gods – are fantasies.  And if a special effect seems in some way other worldly, then all the better.  He was creating visions and illusions, not recreating life.  In that, Harryhausen worked with an artist’s touch, pursuing a personal vision until he realized it fully.  One has the sense that Harryhausen would’ve made films in his basement if he had not achieved success in Hollywood.

A genial, even-tempered and sweet man, Harryhuasen was also something of a loner.  Though he sometimes used assistants, he most frequently worked alone.  He was just so deeply involved in his vision that I think he had difficultly articulating what he wanted, and how he wanted it done, to fellow stop motion animation artists.  He was also very protective of America’s cinematic history, and had little taste for ironists or revisionists.  I well recall someone calling the original King Kong “campy,” and Harryhausen explaining with strained patience that acting, screenwriting and special effects techniques do change, but that in no way negates the quality of the work.  (I often have the feeling that, to many people, anything made without irony is “camp” – a particularly virulent intellectual conceit that diminishes what’s left of our critical faculty.)

Harryhausen was no mean draughtsman, and drew the storyboards for all of his films, as well as making various drawings of fantastic and science fiction images for his own amusement.

Harryhausen Concept Art

For those who wish to sample the best of Harryhausen, below are your correspondent’s five favorite Harryhausen films, along with one bonus picture.  All of them are available on DVD, at your local library, or on Netflix.  See one or all of them – you will not be disappointed.

Mighty Joe Young (1949) was made in collaboration with Harryhausen’s mentor, the great stop motion animator Willis O’Brien (1886-1962), the brilliant special effects pioneer who created King Kong.  Mighty Joe Young was produced by the same team that had created Kong 16 years earlier, and there is a similar vibe to the film, though Mighty Joe Young is a much gentler story with a happy ending.  In short, a producer (played by King Kong alum Robert Armstrong) comes to Africa looking for attractions, only to find an enormous ape that has been raised by a young girl (Terry Moore).  He takes girl and ape back to New York, where poor Joe performs in various seedy nightclubs.  Of course, Joe goes on a rampage, and, after the city issues an order of extermination, the producer, girl, and their cowboy friend (Ben Johnson in his first film role -- I kid you not), plot to get him back to Africa.  The dazzling finale has Joe rescuing children from a burning orphanage.  I know how this all sounds, but … trust me.  It is a spectacular and remarkable moving movie. 

Loosely (very loosely!) adapted from a short story by Harryhausen’s friend, Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was the  first live-action film to feature a giant monster awakened or brought about by an atomic bomb detonation to attack a major city.  The Beast was a tremendous commercial success, spawning an entire genre of giant monster films, including Gorgo (1961), Godzilla (1954), and Them! (1954). In brief: atomic testing awakens a long-dormant prehistoric beast frozen in the Artic Circle.  The monster makes its way to New York, and is finally killed within the framework of the rollercoaster at Coney Island.  For this film, Harryhausen created his own dinosaur, the Rhedosaurus, and it is an incredible conception.  At one moment, the beast knocks down a Manhattan building and the dust rises around him.  It’s a throw-away moment, but it’s a moment filled with magic.

With 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Harryhausen once again creates his own creature, the Ymir, a denizen of Venus.  When a US spaceship on a secret mission from Venus crash lands off the coast of Italy, an egg with an embryonic alien washes ashore.  Growing at an alarming rate, the Ymir escapes and wreaks havoc amongst the ruins of Rome.  Tremendous visuals and great fun.

Many consider Jason and the Argonauts (1963), where Harryhausen was associate producer as well as the master of visual effects, to be his masterpiece.  Retelling the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Harryhausen pulls out all of the stops, animating giant statues, many-headed snakes and his great achievement, a sword fight among Jason and his comrades with an army of skeletons.  I was fortunate enough to see this in the ruins of the great picture palace, Loew’s Jersey City, with Harryhausen in attendance.  The film is a great crowd-pleaser, and I strongly recommend you watch it with a young person to appreciate the full effect.

Jason Concept Art

My personal favorite Harryhausen film is First Men in the Moon (1964), where he again served as associate producer and special effects artist.  This film is an adaptation of the 1901 novel by H. G. Wells, with a screenplay by science fiction veteran Nigel Kneale.  The film opens with a breath-taking conceit: contemporary (1960s) astronauts land on the moon, only to find evidence of a prior visitation … made during the Victorian era!  Representatives from NASA and the media descend upon an aging, frail rascal currently residing in a nursing home, who details in flashback how he got there first, more than 60 years earlier.  For this film, Harryhausen animated the insect like Moon men, giant caterpillar-like Moon calves, and the Great Luna – the controlling intelligence of the planet.  The film is whimsical, thrilling, spectacular and sweetly nostalgic.  It is, in short, a masterpiece.  If you only see one Harryhausen film, make it First Men in the Moon.

One to grow on – though not a “good” film in the traditional sense, I have a remarkable affection for The Valley of Gwangi (1969), another film he produced as well as led the special effects effort.  Gwangi was originally planned as a vehicle for his mentor, Willis O’Brien.  How to describe Gwangi?  Well … cowboys in the Old West find a lost valley, complete with the last surviving dinosaurs.  They capture an Allosaurus and bring it back to tour in a Wild West Show … in short, we have King Kong in the Old West.  I find the mix of cowboys, show business and dinosaurs to be too delicious to miss, and Gwangi ends up in my viewing queue every couple of years.  The film climaxes with a breath-taking tussle between Gwangi and a circus elephant – and includes some of Harryhausen’s finest work.

We are all diminished by the loss of Ray Harryhausen, but his works remains to lighten up the dark corners of our imagination.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The World Loses Ray Harryhausen, Part I

Harryhausen animating the skeleton in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad

It’s just about one month shy of the first anniversary of the passing of Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) one of the Great Men of American Letters.  Sadly, we now mourn the loss of one of the great visionaries of American Cinema, Bradbury’s friend Ray Harryhausen.

In an age when the cinema is glutted with fantasy and science fiction films bloated by special effects, it’s perhaps difficult to remember that genre films were the exception to the rule, and that special effects were once, well …, special.

Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) was born and raised in California, where he became friends with young Ray Bradbury, a fellow science fiction fan.  Like many of an entire generation of science fiction and fantasy buffs, the release of the original King Kong in 1933 was a seminal event in his life.  The mighty Kong fell not only from the Empire State Building, but he fell on Harryhausen as well, metaphorically smothering the boy and making him and a fan of stop motion animation.

The young Harryhausen went Kong-Krazy, and did all he could to learn how the effects of Kong were achieved.  It was then that he learned of Stop Motion Animation, a process by which models were filmed – literally one frame at a time – with slight alterations in posing.  When played sequentially, the animation effect simulated life – making steel-skeleton puppets covered with rubber, fur and miniature costumes come alive.  Harryhausen started building models and making amateur films while in his teens.  Footage of these early films still exists, including one where the young animator has envisioned the world of Venus.  A story that has passed into Harryhausen lore is that he appropriated his mother’s fur coat to create the model of a mastodon….

Harryhausen, in many ways, resembled the great studio painters of yore in that after showing early aptitude, he got to apprentice with an established master.  A friend arranged for Harryhausen to meet Willis O’Brien (1886-1962), the brilliant special effects pioneer who created King Kong.  O’Brien was impressed by Harryhausen’s experimental films, and urged him to take drawing and sculpture courses to hone his craft. 

Harryhausen started his professional career animating short films for science fiction auteur George Pal (1908-1980); the series was called Puppetoons, and specialized mostly in fairy tales.  He also worked with Frank Capra during World War II, mostly as a camera assistant.

After the war, Harryhausen went to work with his mentor, O’Brien, and together they made one of the most impressive fantasy films of the 1940s, Mighty Joe Young (1949).  The film won O’Brien his long over-due Academy Award, which is ironic in that Harryhausen did most of the actual animation while O’Brien focused on solving technical problems.

After that, there was no stopping Harryhausen, and he went on to create the special effects for some of the most celebrated and best-loved fantasy and science fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s: It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and Mysterious Island. He also produced many of his own films (such as Jason and the Argonauts and the original Clash of the Titans), and was always the guiding vision behind each and every film on which he worked.  This led to a unified body of work, similar in tone, outlook and depth of feeling.  No ironist and blessed with a sense of adventure and optimism, Harryhausen opened a world of the imagination to generations of movie goers and future film-makers.  When Harryhausen was honored with a special Academy Award, actor Tom Hanks told the audience, "Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane...I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made!"

Like painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), there is little “color” or drama to Harryhausen’s life.  If Sargent’s epitaph was “he painted,” then Harryhausen’s could well be, “he created.”  He married late in life (in 1963), to Diana Livingston Bruce, and lived quietly in London and Spain, tirelessly breathing life into his magical puppets, and consequently bringing a little magic into the lives of all of us.  Ray Harryhausen loved fantasy, science fiction, hamburgers, his fans, and Diana.  His passing is a great loss to anyone who loves the world of the imagination.

Tomorrow: The Essential Ray Harryhausen Film List

Ray Animated an Elephant and Dinosaur for the Climax of
The Valley of Gwangi

Friday, May 3, 2013

Self-Portrait of Léon Cogniet

We finish our look at French painter Léon Cogniet (1794 – 1880) with this wonderful self-portrait.

Cogniet’s greatest success in life came after 1843, not with his landscape or genre work, but when he devoted himself chiefly to portraits and teaching. He taught art at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the Ecole Polytechnique; he also taught painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to several generations of artists.  Among his acolytes were Dominique Papety, Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat and Adrien Moreau.  His devotion to his students was legendary; when he died in the 10th arrondissement of Paris on November 20, 1880, he was buried in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise

Self-portraits are remarkable personal statements.  Since they are both a reflection and a creation of the artist, they illustrate his artistic prowess while seeking to define himself.  They are how they see themselves, and how they want to be seen by the world.  Sometimes, the artist casts a cold, appraising and clinical eye at himself, and other times provides only a highly romanticized version of himself.  Just as we are often our truest selves only when wearing masks, artists are often the most naked when clothed only in paint.

So, what do we see when we look at Cogniet’s self-portrait?

First, obviously, a very handsome man – one who would not be out of place in New York’s hipster environment (other than he seems to be physically cleaner than most hipsters).  His hair is a tangled mass, but, for all of that, lush, dark, luxuriant.

Cogniet’s eyes gaze directly at us from beneath heavy, soulful brows.  The eyes are, perhaps, the most important note in the picture:  they speak of sincerity, sensitivity and introspection.  But … for all of that, there is a calculated quality to the effect, almost as if Cogniet thought – “they will see me as a sensitive and complicated man.”

The nose is long, and has a peasant-like flatness.  However, the nostrils are small, modulated and delicate.  His lips are a rich vermillion, full and mobile – with the barest suggestion of a self-debasing smile.

However, it is his clothes that make the strongest statement.  He wears a simple (though striking) red cravat over linen shirt, beige vest and dark topcoat (collar turned up in best Romantic fashion).  This is no dandy, no social butterfly, no aspiring court painter.  No – this is a self-styled man of the people; a teacher, a sensitive artist without pretentions of gentility, a man of honesty and frank emotional power.

Yes, it’s all calculated … but remember, calculated to both to obscure and illuminate his real self.  The choices he makes inspire both admiration and a touch of condescension.  Bravo for you, we think, for your lack of pretention, but how pretentious that lack of pretention is!

In this, we should, perhaps, take the word of his many students, to whom Léon Cogniet was a beloved figure.  It’s important to remember that in the atelier tradition, the art of painting continued and thrived simply because many dedicated masters made a point of sharing their genius.  It is that lack of continuity that has retarded contemporary art to such a lamentable degree, and we are all somewhat diminished by the lack of Léon Cogniets in this world.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Massacre of the Innocents by Léon Cogniet

Today we look at a powerful and affecting picture painted by Léon Cogniet (1794 – 1880) in 1824; The Massacre of the Innocents now hangs in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes.

The fact that the Biblical story of the Massacre of the Innocents is of doubtful historicity does not detract from the intensity of this picture.   According to myth, Herod the Great, the Roman appointed King of the Jews, ordered the execution of all young male children in and around the city of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi.  This event is not recorded in then-contemporary records, and can only be found in the Book of Matthew.  (In fact, the first non-Biblical allusion to the tragedy was written more than 300 years after the supposed event.)  Matthew also alluded to the massacre as a the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy: "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more."

In the Biblical story, the Magi (or Wise Men) travel from the east go to Judea in search of the newborn king of the Jews, having "seen his star in the east." Herod directs them to Bethlehem, telling them to let him know who this king is when they find him. After the Magi find Jesus and shower the infant with gifts, an angel tells them not to alert Herod, leading them home another way. 

After the Magi had gone, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. Get up, he said, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

Herod was livid when he realized that the Magi pulled a fast one, ordering his soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding area who were two years old and under, in accordance with the calculations of the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.  (All of this is even more confusing when one considers the popular image of the Magi worshipping Christ in the manger … the chronology necessary to account for the possibility of a two-year old Jesus is a challenge.)

Contemporary estimates are that some 1000 people were in the area at the time, which would, statistically, mean some 20 infants.  If the event happened at all, then these children are the first Christian martyrs.  To some, Christ voluntarily allowed himself to be crucified to expiate his own escape from this, the first attempt on His life.

Because of its integral part in the Christian myth, the Massacre of the Innocents was an incredibly popular theme with painters from the Middle Ages on.  Today’s picture is perhaps Cogniet’s greatest achievement.  Most artists attack the story in a broad view, with many women screaming in lamentation as Roman soldiers mercilessly attack their children.  But rather than take a broad view, Cogniet paints an extremely intimate picture – this is no tableaux out of a Biblical spectacle, but the stark depiction of a terrified mother about to lose her child.

The mother is wonderfully rendered.  Her bare head and bare feet make her more vulnerable, and the fact that she protects her infant with her body in no way mitigates the fact that she is cornered.  The muted colors of the mother and her bit of ruined stairway also underscore the solemnity of the picture.  (The only real hint of color is the pink of the baby’s cheeks.)  Wisely, Cogniet suggests rather than depicts the massacre in the background, a bit of artistic restraint absent in most renderings. 

What is perhaps most striking to my eye is the contemporary feel of Cogniet’s picture.  Though depicting a Biblical story, this painting could well illustrate the insanity of religious violence still occurring in that part of the world.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte, by Léon Cogniet

This wonderful picture, from 1835, can be found on the ceiling at the Louvre.  It was painted by Léon Cogniet (1794 – 1880), a French historical and portrait painter.  Cogniet was born in Paris. In 1812, he entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied under Pierre-Narcisse Guérin alongside such heady company as Delacroix and Géricault.

Cogniet won the Prix de Rome in 1817 and was a resident at the Villa Medici from then until 1822.  He became famous for the painting Marius Among the Ruins of Carthage (1824), and later decorated several ceilings in the Louvre and the Halle de Godiaque in the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, and a chapel in the church of Madeleine.  At first he painted in classical style, but later adopted the more spirited free-flowing brushwork of the Romanticists.

While looking at this picture, it’s important to remember that Napoleon also created a beachhead in the Middle East.  The Emperor had decided that France’s navel power was not up to the task of defeating the Royal Navy in the English Channel, and proposed a military expedition to seize Egypt, undermining Britain’s access to its trade interests in India.  Napoleon’s plan was to form an alliance with the Muslim enemy of the British in India, Tipu Sultan.   (Clearly, forging agreements with Third World madmen is not a 20th Century phenomenon.) 

Napoleon was elected a member of the French Academy of Science in May 1798.  For his Egyptian expedition, he brought with him 167 scientists: mathematicians, naturalists, chemists and geodesists among them; their discoveries included the Rosetta Stone, and their work was published in the Description de l'Égypte in 1809.  This work was a treasure trove for aesthetes, Orientalists and scientists – and is still consulted today for its candor and fresh approach to the region.

Napoleon invaded Malta en route to Egypt in 1798, losing only three men in the process.  The Emperor’s luck held once in Egypt – in the battle of Shubra Khit against the Mamluks (Egypt’s military caste), only 29 French were killed while 2,000 Egyptians were lost.  However, Horatio Nelson and the British fleet captured or destroyed all but two French vessels in the Battle of the Nile, and Bonaparte's goal of a strengthened French position in the Mediterranean was frustrated.

Napoleon moved his army into the Ottoman province of Damascus (Syria and Galilee) in 1799, with 13,000 French soldiers he conquered the coastal towns of Arish, Gaza, Jaffa, and Haifa.  There, he ordered 1,400 prisoners to be executed by bayonet or drowning to save bullets.  The massacre would last three days.  Never a sentimentalist, when his own men were stricken with bubonic plague, Napoleon ordered them to be poisoned as they returned to Egypt. 

Napoleon had to abandon his dreams of Eastern conquest to return to Europe in 1801 to ward off further defeats for the French Army.  Not taking into account the extraordinary loss of life and cavalier attitude towards human suffering, Napoleon’s expedition was a scientific and artistic bonanza.  French Orientalist painting was transformed by this ultimately unsuccessful invasion of Egypt and Syria, which stimulated great public interest in Egyptology.

This wonderfully complex picture is almost allegorical in its attempt to comprise the Egyptian adventure.  The Emperor, of course, is upon a platform, the canopy overhead both protecting him from the sun and preventing him from overwhelming the picture.  On one hand, an officer, his back to us, reports on worldly affairs while an artist, on the other hand, sketches the mammoth statues in the distance.  (Look to the extreme right of the frame.)

Extreme left of the frame, a scholar pore over his notes while, before him, antiquarians collect and catalog treasures.  In the center foreground, a soldier gazes rapturously at a sarcophagus carried by two workmen (one, clearly disgusted).  Beside the soldier looking on, a white-clad Egyptian takes in the scene with a look of disdain.

The most interesting figure is to the far right of the frame talking to the chained slave: Jean-François Champollion (1790 – 1832).  Cogniet would do a larger, more formal portrait of Champollion, but here he shows the scholar holding the Rosetta Stone, from which he would decipher the hieroglyphs of the Ancient Egyptians.

More Cogniet tomorrow!