Friday, April 20, 2018

Elevating the Artist: How French Painters in the Nineteenth Century Emphasized Artist’ Genius

Towards the end of his career, Jean-Leon Gerome became interested in the idea of genius and artistic autonomy. His series of paintings depicting himself working in his studio were an attempt to elevate the artist. These paintings represent the artist and his creative skill. He is seen hard at work sculpting a life-size figure. Accompanying him in his workshop is often a nude female model. The relationship between model, sculpture, and artist is intriguing.
Gerome’s artistic skill and his use of subject matter show his audience this mastery he possesses. On the one hand Gerome displays his expertise through his composition. Rejecting Impressionism, Gerome instead referenced the clear, clean style of Neoclassicism. His crisp lines, pure colors, and smooth finish leave no trace of the artist’s technique. The artist leaves the viewer in intrigue and holds the power of mystery over the viewer. On the other hand, the use of subject matter is a metaphor to represent the skill and even magic of the artist.
Gerome’s intentional focus on the artist is consistent with other French artists in the 19th century. Painters such as Courbet and Manet were also struggling for artistic autonomy. Whether portraying the artist as the focal point in the artwork or by straying from the traditional style, 19th century artists fought for their brilliance to be recognized and praised. 

Jean-Leon Gerome, Pygmalion and Galatea, ca. 1890, Oil on Canvas, MET 27.200

Gerome’s Pygmalion and Galatea references a greek myth in which the statue of Galatea is brought to life by the goddess Venus in fulfillment of Pygmalion’s wish for a woman as perfect and beautiful as his sculpture. Gerome’s use of Pygmalion is a metaphor to demonstrate his ideas about his own artistic identity. Like Pygmalion and his ability to bring his art to life, so too Gerome displays his genius as a painter, sculptor, and even magician. Gerome wishes to show that he possess the divine ability of an artist to create the illusion of life.

Jean-Leon Gerome, The End of the Sitting, 1886, Oil on Canvas, Private Collection 

Then End of the Sitting is one in a series of self-portraits in the studio. Gerome's fascination with the act of sculpting is evident in this and his other “studio” paintings. He was fascinated with the sculptor's mastery of material and the ability to give it form. By portraying himself in his studio sculpting, Gerome shows that the artist not only has the skill to paint human qualities into a figure on a canvas but also possesses the mastery to give stone lifelike features. The sculptor, like God, is a creator, bringing life from the skill of his own hands.

Jean-Leon Gerome, The Artist and His Model, 1890-1893, Oil on Canvas, The Haggin Museum, California 

The artist, Gerome, depicts himself in his workshop putting the finishing touches on his sculpture of Tanagra. In the background are three other works done by Gerome-- his Bust of Selene (far left), Hoop Dancer (far right), and Pygmalion and Galatea. Gerome’s care for crisp lines and a unified composition is evident. Rather than standing on a stool, the artist is on the same platform as his artwork, literally elevating the artist. The artist has placed the model next to the sculpture for constant reference in order to bring his marble to life and show the viewer his mastery over marble. Gerome paints the statue with such lifelike qualities that, aside from the color, the sculpture would be almost indistinguishable from the model, drawing attention to the skill of the artist. 

Gustave Courbet, The Artist's Studio, ca. 1854-1855, Oil on Canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris 

An innovator and pioneer, Gustave Courbet led the Realism movement in the 19th century. Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio depicts a scene in which distinct figures clad in dark colors cluster on either side of the painting. None of the figures seem to be interacting nor do they possess any unifying characteristics. At the center of the artwork, encompassed by lighter colors, is a painter. The artist pictured is Courbet himself. Courbet paints himself as the focal point. It can be understood that the artist represents a mediator. Courbet described his artwork saying "It's the whole world coming to me to be painted." Each figure in the painting has a different meaning and only the artist is capable of unifying and mediating all the unique characteristics of the whole human race. 

Edouard Manet, The Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, Oil on Canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris 

The French painter Edouard Manet played a central role in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. His work The Luncheon on the Grass was the topic of much controversy and was rejected from the Salon primarily because of its detachment from the traditional style of the time as well as his depiction of the nude. The disproportionate composition and sense of disunity which appears in the painting seems odd; however, Manet painted with purpose. Irritated with society’s strict guidelines for what constituted as high art, Manet depicts his genius and ability as an artist to paint a variety of genres. Integrated in a single painting is a still-life and a landscape, as well as a classical greek goddess figure, and both a nude and fully clothed figures. Manet displays his range of skill as an artist in his selection of subject matter. 

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Inter Artes et Naturam (Between Art and Nature), ca. 1890–1895, Oil on Canvas, MET 58.15.2

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes' pleasant nature scene applauds artist’ genius. The scene presents figures lounging about enjoying the simplicity and serenity of nature. The setting in a peaceful grove seems similar to one’s depicted in greek mythology. The figures precisely positioned in the mural appear relaxed and placid; however, in the right hand side of the painting four characters interrupt the harmony. Fully dressed and in modern clothes, the figures stand out against the greek-like dress of the other characters. These four figures, or more precisely artists, are also the only other figures watching those around them. Chavannes portrays the artist as someone who does not merely observe nature but is absorbed in nature. Nature is wise, dignified, and pure. Therefore, because it possesses the virtuous characteristics of nature, the artist’s work (rather than the philosopher's or the scientist’s’) is the highest and most prestigious.

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