In the beginning were the Greeks.
So, at least, goes the catechism of the École des Beaux-Arts, the famed training ground in Paris for painters, sculptors, architects and planners that set the artistic tone of France for more than two centuries after its establishment in 1648 by Charles Le Brun as the Académie de peinture et de sculpture.
The Greek ideal of beauty, and the great Greek storytelling myths, shaped the French artistic imagination and for a time held it like a vise. You can see it in all its exaggerated glory in Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, the big new traveling exhibition that opened Saturday at the Portland Art Museum. In spite of a number of fine intimate-scaled works, it’s a grand-gesture show, a celebration of swagger among the young artists and their instructors, who for the most part had been students at the École, too.
From its founding under King Louis XIV, the École’s goal was to create great art; and great art, its leaders believed, was to be achieved only though a strict system of copying, practicing, and submitting to a larger world-view. In a way it was like the old studios of the Renaissance masters, but more codified and larger in scope. Mastery of drawing was paramount, and although realism was the goal, it was an idealized realism, a realism somehow finer than reality and also moralistic, or at least cautionary: during the height of its neoclassical years, art from the École was fairly vibrating with extreme storytelling vigor. Everything was edifying. Everything had meaning beyond the paint or plaster itself. There was, often, an extreme artificiality to this realism, a hypertension of dramatic effect.
The question is, did the classical régime of the École and its dominating influence over the art of its time stunt creativity, or release it? The answer is, yes, and yes. The works in Gods & Heroes represent the French art world before the dam burst – before the aesthetic revolt that began in the early decades of the 1800s with the likes of Delacroix, Turner in England, Millet, Corbet and Corot, and broke wide open with the sensation of the 1863 Salon des Refusés. Soon the art world, unshackled and democratized, was swamped by the avant-gardists of Impressionism, who led in turn to the Post-Impressionists, Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists, Pop Artists, and all the others who have flooded the art landscape in the past century and a half, creating an artistic Sea of Perpetual Change.
In spite of its concentration on the archaic-seeming idealizations and narrative overstatements of what’s now often regarded as a conservative and hyper-controlled moment in art history, Gods and Heroes feels like some perversely revolutionary act. It dares to ask, what was good about what was swept away? How many babies got thrown out when the bathwater got its necessary freshening? After all, this is the stuff that modernism rebelled against, the stuff that was rejected – and yet, it endures. The show may be most interesting for the way it challenges its audience to go beyond its assumptions and prejudices, and explore a world-view that can seem alien. If you let it, it’ll take you down the rabbit hole – a journey that almost always skews perspectives, and usually also broadens them.
The style and ethic of Gods & Heroes are concentrated in the lean and feline sweep of one of its signature works, a lifesize bronze sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon from 1790 of a man, deep scars like cats’ whiskers on his cheeks, whose skin is flayed away to reveal his idealized muscle structure as he holds a nonexistent plumb bob from the delicately curved fingers of his upstretched hand. Houdon’s proportionally balanced figure, titled Écorché, Right Arm Folded over the Head, is measuring an artistic ideal against the inevitable revolution he can’t yet see – not the one set to the rhythmic chop of the guillotine in 1789, but the shape of art to come.
It’s important to keep in mind that the art from the École des Beaux-Arts was the official art, and also that it was the art of students, if highly gifted and rigorously selected students. The word “masterpieces” in the exhibition’s title is sometimes true, but even the best of the lot generally did their best work later in their careers. And sometimes, in particular with some of the overwrought classical scenes, it’s good to remember that a lot of the students were about 20 years old.
Competition was fierce at the École. Students would vie for honors in several categories, and not just for the glory: a first-place prize came with a three- to five-year scholarship to work and study in Rome. Competition between student and teacher could be intense, too, as with two of the school’s most famous alumni, Jacques-Louis David (whose gorgeously structured 1774 painting Eristratus Discovers the Cause of Antiochus’s Disease is one of the show’s highlights) and Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (whose Byronic 1800 semi-nude Torso (Painted Half-Figure), one of a handful of manly and barely restrained torsos in the exhibit, is a not-so-subtly eroticized scene-stealer). As Dawson Carr, the Portland museum’s curator of European art, puts it, “David was a tyrannical teacher, and alienated his prize student. Ingres felt betrayed by him, just as David had felt betrayed by his teacher,” Joseph-Marie Vien.
Nor was the competition only among contemporaries: The École’s goal of creating great artists used “great” in the long, historical sense, and artists such as David were pitting themselves against the ancients. Speaking of David’s 1783 acceptance painting for the Académie Royale, Andromache Mourning Hector, Carr said the painter was “very much trying to out-do Homer. Trying to out-do Homer’s words.” The painting concentrates its storytelling in its lower half, with Hector lying prone across the canvas, and, in Carr’s words, “the void, if you will, up above. This emptiness that weighs down.”
The action scenes from Greek mythology and the Old Testament often are active only by suggestion: even the most dramatic can seem frozen, like statuary. Michel-Martin Drolling’s 1810 The Wrath of Achilles is as carefully arranged as a chess board or a department-store window display, arms and torsos placed just so. Pierre-Narcisse Guérin’s 1797 The Death of Cato of Utica, in contrast, is a sweep of stylized anguish, like a mistral moving across the room. And there’s a fascinatingly roiled scene by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols, that’s fraught with anguish and filled with architectural detail and very little like the spun-sugar, witty, slyly hedonistic paintings that became his stock-in-trade. Painted in 1752, when he was just 20, Jeroboam nevertheless reveals an artist of great promise.
Many of my favorite paintings in the exhibition are portraits. The best have a fresh directness, and, often, brilliantly subtle illumination and glowing flesh tones that really need to be seen in person; reproductions can’t do them justice. They also tend to be less expressly symbolic and more intimate, revealing quieter, more personal insights. One of the most compelling is a portrait from 1788 or ’89 of the great painter Hubert Robert, looking like a sailor braced against life’s winds, painted by an unknown artist in the style of Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Another woman artist, Julie Duvidal de Montferrier, the Countess, Madame Hugo (she was married to Victor’s older brother, and infamous for her “loose lifestyle”), has a charming, directly gazing self-portrait in a turban. The strangely fascinating Hyacinthe Rigaud contributes a minor comic masterwork with his 1730 painting The Artist Before the Sketch of His Mother’s Portrait, an affectionate work that shows the painter, shy yet resplendent in a tumble of hair with a part down the middle like the Continental Divide, before a canvas with a white outline of his mother’s head and shoulders. The sketch behind him really pops, adding a second focus to the frame. Two side-by-side portraits of Guérin – the first a self-portrait from ca. 1800, the second by Horace Vernet from ca. 1829 – provide a fascinating contrast, from a delicate but forthright face in the earlier painting to a strikingly chiseled, Lincoln-like maturity in the Vernet version. He has the same ruffled hair in both paintings, although over three decades it’s darkened. And one of the exhibit’s major latter-day figures, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, has a refreshingly windblown 1853 portrait of the architect Charles Garnier, open-collared and serious and gazing at some elusive thought off in the distance.
Gods & Heroes features some wonderful drawings, most of them pedagogical – studies in the human form or other necessary objects. Carle Vanoo’s ca. 1737 red chalk drawing Man Walking to the Right, Arm Raised, for instance, is exactly that and admirably achieved, with a liveliness that goes beyond simple academic exercise. Antoine-Jean Gros’ 1790 chalk drawing Standing Man Striking a Bull has more genuine emotional impact than most of the much more grand and complex historical paintings. As the naked man prepares to strike, the viewer’s gaze shifts inevitably to the bull’s lowered head and sad, frightened, wide-open eye, which understands and reflects his imminent end. That haunting sacrificial eye, down in the far right corner, becomes the irresistible and piercing center of the piece. And Pierre-Charles Trémolières has an absolutely charming, intimate small red chalk drawing from 1728-34, based on a now-lost work by Poussin, a gently erotic idyll titled Nymph Surprised by Satyrs. In its delicate mastery of line you can see hints of Picasso to come.
The École featured a landscape competition among its other competitions, and several examples are on hand in Gods & Heroes. Taken as a group they tend to be accomplished and warm, but they are also overlaid with scenes from Greek mythology, and the contrast to my eye is a little forced and a little jarring, as if they are houses divided against themselves. I prefer the subtle pastoral approach of the great Dutch landscape artists, or the grand forests and wildernesses of Caspar David Friedrich and other German and Scandinavian Romantics, or the new-world romanticism of the Hudson River School.
Scattered like buried treasure among the expansive two-story sweep of the 140-object exhibition are several mostly small masterworks that the students used for study and copying, among them an extremely simple 1502 Raphael black chalk drawing of a woman’s head (“half-length, three-quarter view facing right, eyes downcast”), Rembrandt’s 1653 drypoint The Three Crosses, and a ca. 1498 woodcut by Dürer in his most Gothic of moods, The Vision of the Seven Candlesticks. One of my favorite printmakers, Hendrik Goltzius, shows up with a 1594 chiaroscuro woodcut, Demogorgon in the Cave of Immortality, which is paired beautifully with a like-toned chiaroscuro woodcut by Antonio da Trento from ca. 1527-29, Narcissus and the Nymph Echo. And near the end of the exhibition are a pair of lovely little Daumier lithos from 1841 and ’42, Aeneas and Dido and Menelaus Triumphant, wryly comic caricatures that wittily take the theme of classical myth and set it on its head, imbuing it with a gently satiric spirit that seems thoroughly modern, especially in comparison to the serious painterly executions of the École students.
Gods & Heroes is interesting and worth seeing not just for the window it opens on an important and still fascinating period in French art, but also for the window it opens on the École des Beaux-Arts itself. Almost four centuries after it was opened, the École is still alive, active, and teaching, although in a democratized age of cultural multiplicity its dominant position in French artistic life is much reduced. Today’s École has moved on from the work in this exhibition, and much of what’s in Gods & Heroes has been gathered from around and about the school’s buildings: in offices, libraries, here and there and tucked in corners.
In a way, the show is a rediscovery. One of its signal images, a towering, splendidly oddball, almost 10-foot-tall portrait of Louis XIV in all his high-heeled royal grandeur, painted before 1838 after an original by Hyacinthe Rigaud that is in the Louvre, had been hanging on a library wall, hiding a portrait of Napoléon II that was covered over many decades ago for political reasons. History peels away, and reveals itself. Museums follow, and bring us face to face with what we used to be, not so very long ago.