Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Le Grand Siecle

Le Grand Siecle 'the Great Century' was a term coined by the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire, with reference to the reign of Louis XIV. More specifically though, it can be attributed to the arts as a means to describe a certain prestige that they held in the following centuries.

Louis XIV ( reign: 1643-1715) is most famous for his consolidation of absolute monarnichal rule, the creation of a centralised state authority, and the dismantlement of the Feudal system that remained stubborn in parts of France (while appeasing the aristocrats by allowing their residence in his magnificent Palace of Versailles). Futhermore, he expanded French territory northeastwards into the Netherlands at the cost of their allies.

During the Great Century France not only produced their own talent but attracted a lot from elsewhere, too. In this instance, the focus will be on Nicholas Poussin. Nicholas Poussin was French but actually spent a lot of time in Rome. Nonetheless, he is held in high esteem as an artist who preserved classicism in the face of realism. The likes of Jacques-Louis David and Cezanne are known to have admired him for this. To confuse things (at least it really confuses me) he is considered a baroque painter. He is not a realist like the baroque painter Caravaggio, but a classicist. From this we can deduce that baroque art can come in either mode, classical or realist/naturalistic. I try to avoid jumping to conclusions most of the time but fail so i'll do it anyway: Poussin began the loooong journey of realism vs classicism that came to a head in the 19th century with Manet, Toulouse-Lutrec, Seurat, Courbet etc VS. Ingres, Laurens, Picou etc.

The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, 1628-9.
During his stay in Rome, this was his sole papal commission (Urban VIII). Like realist baroque, the composition is dramatic. There are numerous figures crammed together much like Mannerist painting but without the ugly long bodies. HOWEVER, for want of a better phrase there is no "ugly realistic suffering", Poussin has painted stoicism in the saints face. 

The Death of Germanicus, 1927.
Again here the way that the figures are placed evokes a sense of tension and drama. You can imagine the death of someone in public provoking a wave of onlookers to hunch up in a big crowd. The image has been modeled on Roman sarcophagi and thusly seem 'shallow' in their spacial arrangement. Although crowded, you get the sense of movement within the crowd, noone looks stationary. Movement of course, being another benchmark in baroque art.

A Dance to the Music of Time, 1634-36.
I prefer his allegorical work to his religious work not only because the iconography (in my opinion) is more interesting but also because it's so pretty. The four figures dancing are supposedly the four seasons, although i'll admit the only easily idenfiable figure is autumn with the wreath of leaves around her head. To identify them more easily you have to take into account the role of father time and apollo in this allegory (former playing the instrument, with wings and latter in the chariot). Father time, especially when portrayed with or near an hourglass (held by the putti), acts as a memento mori. Now consider that, and the fact that we see apollo either at dawn or dusk. We can only assume the ambiguity of whether the sun is rising or setting is deliberate and refers to the ongoing cycle of the sun and by extension life itself, too. The two together would suggest that the painting is an allegory of death and rebirth. From this we can infer that if apollo represents the birth and death of a day and a life, then the figures may represent the stages of a year and the stages of life. Autumn may represent being born as inherently poor (the clothes are visibly inelegant); the figure to the right with head dress that may represent a working woman and thus the stage in life where you must endure labour to survive (winter); the third figure, spring, bears a crown and therefore could represent the wealth that comes from labour to her left; lastly, summer, with a wreath of flowers in her hair to represent the pleasures of the wealth. Then..... you die! thanks to father time. 

(Oh and the statue to the left has an old face and young face (one covered in facial hair, the other not))

Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, 1648.
The patron that asked for this painting specifically asked for beautiful women. It is believed that the jugs are used to represent the perfect form of the woman, as per the request of the patron. This however is clearly very classical with only some hint of baroque in it (moving water from jugs, woman walking with jug on her head and one in her hand). Artists obviously get a kick out of making art history very confusing to study.

Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648.
The use of landscape in this one creates a sense of baroque drama that Poussin has been lacking in. You can see four sets of figures: the dead bloke killed by a snake, the man running away from it, the woman alarmed by the other man running and lastly the fisherman who also seem to be panicked via the woman in distress.

The Ecstacy of St. Paul, 1650.
Baroque influence has clearly been strong in this instance due to its theatricality and lots of movement with the smoke and arms - yet it still lacks the dramatic delivery of Italian baroque.

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