Monday, March 7, 2011

A Couple of Frenchmen I Should Have Met Before

Hickory is a hedgehog who tries to spread a little culture over his spines from time to time in the hope that a bit will stick. To this end I have been in Madrid this weekend taking in the work of Messrs. Gérôme (Jean-Léon) and Chardin (Jean-Baptiste Siméon) the Frenchmen of the title. The first was at the Thyssen Museum, the second at the Prado.

I had never heard of either of them, something I find hard to believe given the quantity and quality of their work and the fame that each enjoyed in his lifetime. Perhaps they have become deeply unfashionable, or perhaps my ignorance of painting is even greater than I imagined. In any case, I didn't know them, and now I do and, as usual, I shall share my impressions with the readership.

Gérôme is characterized by a love of colour, allegory and human flesh. He lost a post because his nudes were weak, so he worked at it hard and, as we can see, got the hang of it pretty well. You need to when you want to paint classical scenes as allegories of great human emotions, feelings, failures and triumphs. There is a lot of detail, of clothes and other decorations especially, picked out against fairly generic and two dimensional backdrops. He uses any excuse to apply areas of bright pastel shades- pistacho, mustard, sky blue, salmon, corinth- to a work and to have them "enter into challenging dialogue", or scream and shout at each other, which is what they do. And he likes patches of very high illumination, a strip on a sleeve or a shield, a face in the sun or a jar in the light of a flame, which often don't reflect very faithfully the supposed source of light.

The draughtsmanship and composition are largely classical, sometimes original, sometimes uninspired. Wellm we all have good and bad days. He uses a wide range of themes, and as well as what is noted above, he liked images of battles, and soldiers, especially the Turks. He had a Bashi-Basouk period, and you can't say that about many people. His faces are sometimes very striking, although his figures, other than the nudes (the Pygmalions, the Harems) are mostly not.

The use of colour, I noticed, is always justified somehow by the narrative of the painting, it's never completely arbitrary.

Chardin dedicated much of his time to still life, stressing dead hares and rotting fish more than one would have thought necessary. There's some good stuff in there, but you have to like still life. Many people don't. A lot of the compositions are obviously out together from things he found about the kitchen, or occasionally the bedroom. Then he tried experimenting with 'scenes from the study, the boudoir, the atelier and the nursery complete with impish children and monkeys instead of people.' He became fun for a while. Then it was back to the fruit and the bloody hares. Worth taking a look at if you're in Madrid, but it requires some work on the part of the observer. Gérôme is easier viewing, but then he sprinkled naked women about rather than deceased game. Chardin said, apparently, that he wasn't originally looking to capture the details, but that  he wanted 'to stand back and represent the mass of form, the curves, the tones, the light and shade, of the composition'. I think we can say he achieved it.


Vincent said...

Thanks for this, CIngram. You've written very well about these two artists and I can't help sharing your tastes in the matter, and wishing that the nude could have been given some realistic pubic hair.

CIngram said...

But ideal women don't have pubic hair, Vincent. Did the Renaissance teach you nothing?

Vincent said...

I'm glad I never had intimate relations with an ideal woman.