Friday, December 15, 2017

The Knight of the Flowers (1894)

Georges Rochegrosse: The Knight of the Flowers

From the moment they were created, the operas of Richard Wagner aroused great admiration, particularly from the artists of the Symbolist generation who took many of his subjects as inspiration for their paintings. Thirsting after an ideal, they were overwhelmed by the power of this musician who brought the great myths and old legends back to life. When Rochegrosse painted The Knight of the Flowers he was pursuing his ambition to move closer to the refined and elitist aesthetic of the Symbolists, and to take advantage of the huge popularity of the English Pre-Raphaelites at that time. In 1894, the year when the The Knight was exhibited at the Salon, he also designed, with Francis Auburtin, the sets for the play The Sleeping Beauty, presented at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, with costumes by Edward Burne-Jones. So it is not surprising to see him take his inspiration from Parsifal (1882) for this painting.

Rochegrosse depicts the moment when Parsifal, the chaste hero destined to find the Holy Grail, has just struck down the guardians of the castle of the magician Klingsor. He moves away into the enchanted garden, deaf to the calls of the flower maidens, femmes fatales scantily clad in narcissi, peonies, roses, irises, tulips, violets and hydrangeas.

Compared to the majority of Wagnerian paintings that are often rather dark and tragic, this view is quite unexpected. Perhaps fearing criticism, Rochegrosse explained in the Journal des Débats of 2 June 1894 that he had intentionally distanced himself from the opera libretto in order to represent "the central idea of the scene": this human being who was immune to temptation because he was "obsessed with the ideal". Eventually he received critical acclaim, and the State bought the work for the Musée du Luxembourg. Rochegrosse had adapted his work perfectly to the tastes of the time by painting a picture that looked modern: he tackled a Symbolist subject in a Realist style, adding a touch of Impressionism in his treatment of the landscape and vegetation. Moreover, the very graphic interpretation of temptation gives the whole image a carnal dimension that the public could not have failed to notice. [Musée d'Orsay]

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Priestess of Bacchus (1894)

William Bouguereau: Priestess of Bacchus

Painted in 1894, Prêtresse de Bacchus is a tremendous example of Bouguereau’s virtuosic skill that had brought him such enormous commercial success by this point while anticipating his later compositions. In contrast to his earlier works that illustrate Classical themes, such as La jeunesse de Bacchus (1884) or Nymphes et Satyre (1873) – paintings that intended to convey a particular narrative – Prêtresse de Bacchus features a single model and belongs to a series the artist referred to as “fantasy paintings.” In the present work, Bouguereau isolates his subject within a vast landscape and, without any contextual framework beyond her costume, she becomes representative of a lost, ancient ideal.

The Priestess of Bacchus herself belongs to the iconographic tradition of Maenads, or Bacchantes; mythological women who were popular subjects with nineteenth century artists who favored them for their intrinsic eroticism and ecstatic youthfulness. Although her calm demeanor differs greatly from the usual ferocity of the lascivious Bacchantes, she is clearly identified as a Dionysian devotee by two unmistakable symbols: the ivy wreath she wears on her head, a reminder of her connection to wine and revelry; and the thyrsus she holds in her right hand, a pinecone topped staff originating in Attic vase painting as a symbol of Bacchus and present in several of Bouguereau’s other depictions of Bacchantes.

Bouguereau both acknowledges and modifies his Classical source, presenting this priestess simply as an enduring object of aesthetic contemplation.  The model for this work, an Italian girl who frequently posed for Bouguereau between 1894 and 1895, posed for several such “fantasies” including a companion painting to the present lot of a seated Bacchante (1894), as well as Souvenir  (1894), and Le secret (1894). In his choice of a model with recognizably Italian features, as well as in the work’s mise-en-scene against a cool-colored landscape, Bouguereau draws a comparison between these fantasies of an ideal antiquity and the contemporary Italian peasant women that form so much of his painted oeuvre, implying an unbroken continuum of idealized women from antiquity to his own time.

In depicting this young woman devoid of all other narrative context, Bouguereau guides the viewer’s focus to the figure’s delicate features and remarkable physiognomy; from her elongated neck, suggesting the influence of Bouguereau’s beloved Florentine Renaissance, and to her strong, contrapposto stance that evokes the autonomous beauty of Classical statuary.

This painting is especially noteworthy for its exemplary flesh-tones. Well-painted skin was considered both the greatest challenge and the most important painterly quality in much of nineteenth century Academic discourse. By depicting the priestess with her arm raised, he demonstrates the subtle play of color running down her arm, with hues of blue and purple paint overlaid by translucent layers of warmer tones. Indeed, the same principle of translucency that gives warmth to her skin informs the diaphanous handling of her drapery, which hints at the body beneath. [Sotheby’s]