In 19th century France, theology placed great importance on the transcendent and divine, with a deep opposition to naturalism. This movement was called Ultramontanism. Much of the church’s artwork consisted of figures of the Lord, Mary, saints, etc., in a large and superior manner that presented them as inaccessible to the common man.
However, some artists were pushing back on this through their work, and desired to show that the spiritual and earthly are not at war. While 19th century art of the church emphasized the transcendence aspect, many other artists strove to depict the heavenly as part of the here and now. Part of this was for the purpose of communicating visually that the Bible is tangible history (Books -- representing belief: Religion, art, and society in. (1992, Jul 29). The Christian Century, 109, 721. )
One artist, Gustave Doré, chose to portray this by mixing the bizarre and grotesque nature of the other world with naturalistic elements in his style. Others depicted other-worldly subject matter with naturalistic style and technique. Artists used numerous methods to blend the other-worldly with this world. Whichever way artists chose, they were rebelling, whether intentionally or not, against the church’s view of art that Christianity could only be portrayed visually with “super spiritual” iconic figures and symbols, such as Mary, or the saints.
Many French artists in the 19th century blended the grotesque and fantastic with the everyday as a sort of rebellion.
Le Christ sortant du tombeau, Gustave Doré, 1850–83, Gouache and brush and brown ink; over black chalk on brown paper, 60.147
Doré portrays the resurrection in a way that informs the viewer that the event is not of this world and is of something much grander, yet is also occurring on earth in a particular time and place with real people. A bright, slightly glowing figure of the resurrected Lord Jesus grabs viewers’ attention, His power and transcendence is communicated through curvy line strokes and light/dark shading. At the same time, however, he is a human figure, along with the naturalistic-looking guards to his left. Several angelic and demonic creatures climb out of the chaotic mass behind the figure of the Lord, creating a grotesque backdrop. Instead of depicting the resurrection as a simple icon/symbol, Doré intertwines the darkness and horror with the light that the risen Lord brings as He walks on the earth. This Doré piece brings a supernatural and otherworldly frame to surround a historical event.
Two Landscapes, Rodolphe Bresdin, 1822–1885, Pen and black ink, 51.504.12
Bredsin’s drawing brings a scattered and multi-faceted representation of the supernatural and otherworldly on earth. With an abnormally large insect-like creature that is easily noticeable on the right side of the picture, the sense of disruption and unlikely things in unlikely places infiltrates the piece. Architecture that resembles a castle or church stands below this insect, adding an ode to creation and man’s existence in this scene. On the opposite side of the piece, soaring angelic figures reference a higher being. Mountains lie etched just below these nude flyers, along with trees sketched throughout the piece. With the blend of naturalistic looking figures and landscapes as well as clearly other-worldly additions, the scene declares that both can exist at the same time on earth. In 19th century French theology, this concept was not one of widespread agreement, as many argued that objects of this world and the other are separate.
Faunes Dansant (Dancing Fauns), Rodolphe Bresdin, 19th century, Etching, 51.504.34
Another piece from Bresdin, Faunes Dansant brings several mythological human-creatures into the scene, coming out of a passageway into a rock and tree-filled landscape. Fauns, as the title of the piece indicates and the picture depicts, unite the naturalistic and the mythological in a unified manner. These fauns are portrayed in such a naturalistic way that it is easy to mistake them for humans, but their nudity and lack of detail add to their identity as hybrid creatures. Bresdin goes against the norm of keeping the other-worldly distinct from this earth by bringing a group of mythological creatures into a naturalistic landscape.
Embers Glow, Théodore Roussel, 1890–97, Etching and aquatint printed in colour à la poupée from a single plate; first state of three, 1980.1133.22
In addition to the piece’s overall theme, Roussel blends the other-worldly with this world through his style. Using straight lines and leaving clear etchings for the viewer to see, he combines the woman in the center of “Embers Glow” with the landscape behind her. By forming both the figure and the background with the same lines and encompassing parts of the woman’s body in the landscape, Roussel portrays her as undeniably part of the grander scene. Although the figure appears naturalistic with her proportionality and distinct physical characteristics, her nudity and centrality in the picture suggest that she represents more than simply an ordinary figure. Her eyes appear captivated, while her arm is surrounded by what seems to be part of a mountain. Using a mystical and strange scene, Roussel joins the rebellion against separating the ordinary and the supernatural.
Madonna of the Rose, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, 1885, Oil on canvas, 06.1233.2
Madonna of the Rose presents Mary nursing her baby, the Lord Christ. Her pondering expression and naturalistic facial features give away her humanity. The scene is intentionally ordinary, with a vase of flowers and bedside table implying that they are in an interior space. The baby Jesus is breast feeding, another starkingly human event of this world. However, amidst this very earthly picture are indicators of the supernatural and wondrous. A beam of light shines around the baby Jesus, whose head is hidden, while a halo stands around Mary’s head. This depiction of an iconic scene in the church is a direct combat to the 19th century French church’s ultramontanism and belief that the spiritual is to be distinctly separate. This artist shows the reality that the Lord of the universe and his mother lived on the earth as physical and human beings.
A Rider and a Dead Horse in a Landscape, Gustave Doré, 1832-1883, Pen and black ink, brush and black ink, heightened with white on a woodblock, 1977.543
A dead horse is seen lying on the earth surface, with a translucently white color and flowing hair that makes it appear mystical and still glowing with life. A figure that is depicted with a naturalistic style and is clearly human walks toward the horse. Another figure who is difficult to make out appears to resemble a ghost. The swirly and chaotic mesh of curly and straight lines forms the landscape, which depicts a dark storm. Using contrasts between light and dark in the sky and on the ground where the horse and figures lie, Doré suggests that although this scene appears to be a mere earthly event, the death of a horse, the heavens have something to say about it. He again entangles a grotesque and bizarre style with worldly objects, thus blending the supernatural with the natural.