Here is a wonderfully (and unexpectedly) tender painting by an artist we have not covered before, Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1783-1859). He is not as well known in the United States as he should be, but his relatively small oeuvre is replete with delicacy and grace.
Delorme was born in Paris and was a student of Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767-1824) – who was, himself, a student of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), whom we have covered many times in these pages. The influence of both Girodet-Trioson and (once-removed) David are readily apparent. Delorme was, in many ways, an exemplar of the classical style of painting of the Empire period. He painted a number of significant works, including pictures for the palaces of Versailles, Fontainbleau, Neurilly and Compiegne, as well as various Parisian churches.
Like his masters, Delorme produced pictures featuring monumentally sculpted figures in a posed, almost tableaux-like composition. His interests were historical and mythological, like others of the period, and he sought to tell universal truths about people through evocations of a more sublime ideal.
However, Delorme parts company with his contemporaries because he also carries within his worldview an earlier, Renaissance ideal. Following his apprenticeship, Delorme spent many years in Italy, where he became enamored of the works of such later Renaissance figures as Raphael and Michelangelo. The influence of these painters – more human, more emotional, more fluid -- lent his work an added depth; almost as if the Mannerist experiment added a touch of humanity and emotion to what is a technically brilliant, but emotionally cold, school of painting.
The story of Cephalus and Aurora is told in Book Seven of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Cephalus, an Athenian hero, falls in love with Procis, and marries her. Shortly afterwards, while hunting deer, he catches the eye of Aurora, Goddess of the Dawn. Though a Goddess, Aurora was sexually adventurous and was frequently attracted to young mortal men. Descending from her mountain home, Aurora carried Cephalus off with her. However, on finding that he remained faithful to Procris, she allowed him to return home, privately swearing vengeance. She caused a spirit of jealousy to infect their marriage and this eventually resulted in the accidental death of Procris who suffered a wound inflicted by Cephalus with his enchanted hunting spear.
For a story with such a tragic ending, this is an exceptionally sweet and affecting picture.
Let’s start with Aurora. The debt to Raphael is particularly strong in this picture, as is evidenced by the serene beauty of Aurora, and the delicate pansexuality of the putti. The gossamer quality of her hair, along with the placidity of her gaze, mark Delorme’s Aurora as a Renaissance figure. Look, too, at her delicately drawn feet, and the diaphanous quality of her dress, which renders her leg visible. This is draughtsmanship of a high caliber, and the subtlety of the lighting effects are clearly influenced by Late Renaissance (or Mannerist) painting.
Cephalus also looks more like a Renaissance figure than a figure from the French Empire era. Delorme paints a male figure of heart-breaking beauty. Look at the graceful lines of the body and the angelically handsome face; it’s impossible to look at Cephalus without a sense of awe at his transformative beauty.
Delorme achieves this with strategic lighting effects: his strong brow and sensitive line of nose are well lit. The light then accentuates the wide, capacious breast, lilting down to the stomach and growing darker, darker around the powerful legs. The artist also hints at the width of his body by the hot, white light of the right knee, popping up behind the shadowed foreleg.
But the real heart of the picture is Aurora’s hand, placed lovingly on the breast of Cephalus. This component, if nothing else in the picture, is the work of pure genius. That one touch denotes romantic love, sexual passion, possession, gentleness and protection. The impression transcends the emotional and moves into the range of the elemental.
Artist Leon Kossoff (born 1926), would often look at the paintings of great masters, sketching his own conceptions of the art before him. He would often sit before a painting of Cephalus and Aurora (though, the one he gazed at compulsively was by Poussin). One day, he had a transformative experience before the painting, which he remembered thusly: It seemed as though I was experiencing the work for the first time. I suppose there is a difference between looking and experiencing. Paintings of this quality, in which the subject is endlessly glowing with luminosity, can, in an unexpected moment, surprise the viewer, revealing unexplored areas of self.
That is exactly how I react to Delomre’s depiction. That glowing quality of luminosity completely takes me by surprise, and I feel as if I’m keying into some extraordinarily powerful emotional undercurrent.